October 27, 2021

Education committee hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives

 If U.S. education officials follow through on their assurances to lawmakers Wednesday, higher-education institutions that participate in federal student aid programs could face a lot more scrutiny in how they enroll students.

 At an education committee hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives, an Education Department official and a government investigator vowed to go after institutions that enroll unprepared students through fraud and abuse. The hearing was held in response to a report, released last month from the General Accounting Office, showing that a few propriety institutions gave students answers to tests so that they would be eligible for Title IV student aid. In other cases, the report said, institutions encouraged students to obtain high school diplomas through diploma mills so the students could secure federal loans.

 Robert Shireman, deputy undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Education, said his office agrees with the report findings. The department is bolstering its communication with other government agencies to help identify illegal activity and revamping how it reviews institutions that participate in federal student aid programs, he said.

 He offered as an example the following: the department now adds and extracts information about consumer complaints from the Federal Trade Commission; the department has created a database that allows student complaints to be referred to law enforcement officials, and the department is using more targeted auditing and investigative techniques to identify suspect institutions.

 “The goal is strengthening the integrity of financial aid programs,” Mr. Shireman said.

 Mary Mitchelson, acting inspector general of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General, said her office will continue to investigate fraud regarding the tests that determine eligibility for Title IV student aid (referred to as an Ability-to-Benefit or ATB test), and on-line high school diploma mills.

 The hearing took a dramatic turn when George Scott, director of education, workforce and income security issues for the Department of Education, played an audio recording of a test administrator giving students answers to the ATB test. “Mark it ‘C’ on the paper,” the administrator is heard telling students.

 Lawmakers at the hearing expressed concern over the GAO report findings.

 Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, said the tactics that some institutions use to lure students to federal aid programs reminded him of the deceit that occurred during the recent housing market scandal.

 “It looks a lot like subprime student loans,” he said.

 Other lawmakers urged education officials not to label all proprietary institutions or the students who attend them as disreputable.

 Rep. Brett Guthrie, a Kentucky Republican, praised a proprietary school in his district, Sullivan University.

 “Proprietary schools like Sullivan University have a history of offering quality educations to students in a variety of fields,” he said. “These institutions also have a history of educating underserved populations, including those in rural and urban areas where students have very limited options for job training.”

 Harris Miller, president and CEO of the Career College Association, reiterated that sentiment.

 “Just because we have non-traditional students,” he said “doesn’t mean they’re not successful students.”

 —- Andrea L. Foster

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