Are for-profit colleges hurting online education’s reputation?

For-profit colleges account for about half of student loan defaults.

Congressional hearings and a barrage of criticism have put for-profit colleges on the defensive, and with many of the sector’s largest schools touting vast web-based course options, those who track the industry say for-profit programs could damage the public perception of online education.

Lawmakers from both major parties have defended the for-profit industry’s business practices, but Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has remained one of the most vocal—and active—critics of for-profit colleges’ recruitment and student loan practices.

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Harkin has held five Senate hearings—including a July 21 roundtable discussion with for-profit college officials—and released three reports detailing the industry’s abuses. He has repeatedly pointed out that for-profit colleges educate 10 percent of American students and take in about 25 percent of federal student aid.

Harkin has remained complimentary of for-profit schools that don’t maintain high student loan default rates, but his reports have uncovered strategies for roping prospective students into federal loans that pay for pricey classes.

Many of the industry’s largest colleges with the most recognizable brand names, including the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University, have advertised using the anywhere, anytime convenience of online courses that appeal to adults with hectic schedules.

“Online education is quite distinct from the profit motive of [for-profit schools],” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), who spoke during Harkin’s July 21 roundtable discussion. “But the confluence comes when people see for-profits highlighting their online classes.”

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