The lack of regulatory control over for-profit universities has been a hot topic on Capitol Hill lately, with Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, holding hearings to scrutinize particular institutions. After one such hearing last week, Harkin questioned whether federal and state agencies are doing enough to protect students who do business with for-profit schools.
"It seems that many of these for-profit education companies are becoming multi-state corporations, and their main focus is becoming their bottom line rather than their students," Harkin said. "In their current state, are our accreditation agencies equipped to oversee billion-dollar, multi-state corporations? From the evidence that we've seen today … I don't think so."
Despite such concerns, some education analysts argue that for-profit schools serve a valuable role by giving students more choices and greater scheduling flexibility and by pushing traditional universities to be more consumer-friendly.
"Any attempt to expand participation of Americans in higher education would do well to seriously include for profit institutions in planning, and public policy should encourage, not discourage this sector's continued growth," wrote the authors of the 2010 study by the Center for College Affordability.
Pinsky and Bohanan said the more established players in the for-profit world seem to embrace regulation as a way of separating themselves from newer, potentially less scrupulous competitors.
"A lot of them seem to be saying, 'Look, we're legit, we're clean,'" Pinsky said. "They want to separate themselves from the fringe players."
The bill has drawn support from the state university system and from the state's private, nonprofit colleges and universities.
"It's almost as though there's another large university in Maryland, but it's unregulated," said Ben Birge, associate vice president for government relations at University of Maryland, University College. "The way I see this bill, it doesn't focus on the for-profits because they are doing something wrong. It just makes more sense to have all schools under the same regulatory umbrella."
As a largely online university, UMUC is perhaps the state's most direct competitor with many of the national for-profits. Birge said that one overlooked benefit of the bill would be the submissions of data about student enrollment and program offerings required from for-profit universities.
"Some of the data-gathering aspects of this bill should help better inform the state about what's going on in higher education," he said. "From my perspective, these are steps in the right direction."
Pinsky said that with the landscape of online education evolving so quickly, the legislation will probably have to be revisited, possibly as soon as next year. "We all acknowledge that this is just a first cut," he said.