The effort to hold Wisconsin for-profit colleges accountable for graduation and employment outcomes was scuttled last week after strong opposition from the schools and influential lawmakers.
The Educational Approval Board, which decides whether for-profit colleges can operate in the state, shut down a committee charged with developing standards for them.
The committee had met just once, on Feb. 22, a meeting highlighted by testimony opposing the standards by representatives from numerous for-profit colleges.
Earlier that month, Gov. Scott Walker replaced three members of the seven-member approval board. There is one vacancy.
Then on March 12, Rep. Steve Nass, chairman of the Assembly higher education committee, wrote in an email to the approval board that it should suspend the committee and work "in a more cooperative atmosphere" with the schools.
"I believe this process is very premature," Rep. Nass wrote.
He called the regulation efforts — which would have required the colleges to show that at least 60 percent of students who started programs finished and got jobs in their fields — well-intentioned but needing more study and input.
Some national observers took a different view, noting that similar measures throughout the country typically meet the same fate against the well-funded for-profit college industry.
"The basic narrative is pretty much the same," said Barmak Nassirian, a Washington, D.C. independent education policy analyst who's studied for-profit colleges for two decades. "The industry obviously put a full-court press on and killed the effort."
Major economic consequences
For-profit colleges told the board last month the accountability standards were unreasonable.
"You are proposing performance expectations that very few of your own public institutions could meet," said Vickie Schray, a senior vice president at Bridgepoint Education, parent company of Ashford University and University of the Rockies.
David Dies, the executive secretary of the EAB, said it's beside the point. EAB doesn't oversee public schools and Dies said the economic consequences of students not succeeding at for-profit schools can be far more dire since students tend to take on much bigger debt loads. A federal report last August looked at 30 for-profit higher education companies and found they charge students up to four times the cost for some programs as publicly funded community colleges, resulting in heavy debt loads and spotty graduation and job placement outcomes.
"Those individuals become a drag on the state's economy," Dies said.
In his email, Nass cited the concerns of colleges, saying the new measures came unexpectedly and without adequate input. He also referenced Walker's new appointments to the EAB.
Governor's new appointees
In early February, the governor announced three new appointees — Robert Hein of Janesville, a UW-Rock County math professor, William Roden of Grafton, an educational consultant, and Katie Thiry of Prescott, an online college teacher.
Walker's move came unexpectedly but is not uncommon, Dies said. Board members serve at the governor's discretion and governors commonly swap in new appointees during their first term. Walker's office issued a statement on the appointments Friday, saying it "has been working for some time to fill the positions with a diverse blend of representation within the educational sphere, so all can come together and address the big issues facing higher education."
"I think it's simply coincidence," Dies said of the timing. "I don't think it's anything Machiavellian."
Practically, it meant that three of the board members who had backed the accountability measures when they were being proposed last fall are now gone, replaced by members new to the issue.
"It became apparent it might not be the best time to bring these issues forward," Dies said.