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January 13, 2011 2:26 PM Sloppy vs. Sloppy: For-Profit Colleges and the GAO

By Daniel Luzer

In the continuing saga of the Government Accountability Office report on for-profit colleges that was slightly exaggerated, a new paper commissioned by America’s for-profit schools accuses the GAO of “sloppy investigating.” But then, the for-profit paper (written by an Illinois research company) seems to be pretty sloppy too.

According to an article by Kelly Field in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The company, Norton/Norris Inc., a “mystery shopper” for colleges, was able to confirm only 14 of the 65 original findings in the report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s investigative arm. In 14 cases, findings could not be confirmed because some recordings were unavailable on the Senate education committee’s Web site. In a report that will be released Thursday, the company accuses the GAO of bias and sloppy investigating.
A spokesman for the accountability office said Norton/Norris never contacted the GAO for an explanation and noted that not all of the information in support of the report has been made publicly available. In some cases, videos were not posted online because they have been turned over to the Education Department’s inspector general “due to evidence of serious wrongdoing uncovered by investigators,” said Chuck Young, managing director of public affairs. In other cases, the report relied on written materials that have not been released.

Wait what?

So the GAO published a report that used material that isn’t publicly available. Then Norton/Norris Inc. tried to reinvestigate all of the claims of GAO but couldn’t access the material that isn’t publically available. Norton/Norris then couldn’t confirm all of the information alleged in the GAO report. Norton/Norris concludes that the GAO report was biased and sloppy.

This appears to be a case of a really flawed report attacking a slightly flawed report.

As others have written extensively, there were some very real, though rather minor, inaccuracies in the GAO’s summer report, as there often are in government publications. But since when did American proprietary schools become the arbitrators of good research?

Just stop already. This nickpicky pseudo-scholarship doesn’t make an industry look honorable or innocent. Just ask big tobacco; it makes the industry look more disreputable.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer