A Senate Spat Over For-Profit Education

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TIME’s Elizabeth Dias files this report:

A Senate Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions Committee investigation into federal investment in for-profit colleges devolved into a political squabble this morning, with Republican Sen. Richard Burr calling Sen. Tom Harkin’s investigation a “witch hunt.”

The proceedings were charged from the start. Before testimony even began, Republican Sen. Mike Enzi walked out of the hearing in protest: “I”ll leave [Sen. Harkin] to go ahead and beat up on the for-profit schools.” Then Burr, the only other Republican present, blasted Harkin for failing to weigh for-profit schools’ graduation rates more heavily in his investigation (despite the discussion of graduation rates in the hearing today after he left).

Sen. John McCain, who joined the debate after it had begun, said the debate “exemplifies the really sharp divisions between our two parties and our philosophies of government. Perhaps in January we will have a different agenda for this committee and the United States Senate.” Then he too turned and left the room. McCain’s comment suggests that reform of for-profit regulations is another issue at stake in the midterm elections. “Is [McCain] implying that if the Republicans take over the Senate they won’t do anything about the for-profit sector?” Sen. Harkin asked. Harkin announced he would introduce legislation to regulate for-profit abuses after the next Congress is seated.

For-profit schools have sought to improve their public image since hearings opened in June. The Career College Association quietly changed its name to the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU) on Sept. 22. The APSCU is now running television commercials tailored to political hot-buttons; two ads claim for-profit colleges are essential for both green and health-care jobs. And yesterday, the APSCU organized a 2,000-person rally supporting for-profit schools at the U.S. Capitol, where CEO Harris Miller acknowledged abuse is unacceptable and reminded students that Congress might now listen to their for-profit advocacy since leaders seek student votes.

But given the report Harkin released this morning–which noted that more than half of students at many for-profit schools drop out within the first two years–it remains to be seen how deep the sector’s makeover goes. And given the divided agendas revealed this morning, student education and taxpayer dollars, invested in Pell grants for for-profit school students, may still hang in the balance.