For-profit colleges: the subprime mortgage industry, 2012 version

Earlier this week, Tamar Lewin of the New York Times published an excellent story about a congressional report that was released earlier this week about for-profit colleges. I didn’t see this report, authored by a committee headed by Senator Tom Harkin, covered in any of the blogs I regularly visit so I wanted to be sure I wrote about it a little here. For-profit colleges are an increasingly significant and fast-growing segment of the higher education field, and this is a cause for alarm. These schools are bottom-feeding, malevolent institutions. Here’s what Senator Harkin told The Times about the committee’s investigation:

In this report, you will find overwhelming documentation of exorbitant tuition, aggressive recruiting practices, abysmal student outcomes, taxpayer dollars spent on marketing and pocketed as profit, and regulatory evasion and manipulation . . . [snip] These practices are not the exception — they are the norm. They are systemic throughout the industry, with very few individual exceptions.

Here are some more of the details cited in the article:

— Students at for-profit colleges are charged, on average, four times a much for tuition as are students at public colleges and universities.

— 80% of the revenue of for-profit colleges comes courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer — i.e., the federal government.

— They use really sleazy and deceptive business practices to attract students. Lewin reports:

Furthermore, the report found, recruiters are often encouraged to avoid directly answering questions about costs and instead emphasize that with federal aid, student will pay little out of pocket. And costs are not easy for students to determine. A former Westwood College recruiter explained that prospective students were told that the cost was $4,800 per term, but not that there were five or six terms a year rather than the usual two or three.

— These colleges do an exceptionally crappy job of educating students. First of all, they can’t even manage to retain students. The Times article states that “the majority of students they enroll leave without a degree, half of those within four months.” Even those who do earn credits or a credential frequently discover it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on:

At many schools, students learned only after the fact that their credits would not transfer to another college or university or qualify them for the professional licensing they sought.

— Another great stat from The Times: “Students at for-profit colleges make up 13 percent of the nation’s college enrollment, but account for about 47 percent of the defaults on loans.”

— The Times also reports that the portion of revenue that goes to profits exceeds the portion that goes to instruction, 19.4 percent vs. 17.7 percent, respectively. And the CEO’s at these places make, on average, a staggering $7.3 million per year. One CEO made $41 million in 2009!

Here is some of the political background to this report: in this economy, the demand for technical and vocational education is greater than ever. Unfortunately, funding for many of those programs at community colleges and other public institutions has been slashed. The for-profit colleges have stepped in to meet the demand, and Republicans love this. They think of the for-profit colleges as being a market-friendly alternative to public institutions and therefore superior in every way — practically, morally, spiritually, you name it. So they strongly support policies that encourage lax regulation over these places, and that enable them to greedily feed off the public trough of taxpayer money.

This is a toxic brew and truly noxious state of affairs, but sadly, it doesn’t look like anything will change soon. Writers Roger Bybee at In These Times and David Halperin of The Republic Report both conclude that, in Halperin’s words:

There is stalemate in Washington on holding this industry accountable, because the big money that it spends on lobbying, lawyering, and campaign contributions has bought the allegiance of many congressional Republicans and Democrats and has thwarted federal regulations. Thus determined reform efforts by the Obama Administration, and principled leaders [snip] have largely been blocked.

It’s all so sadly predictable. And now I’m so depressed about blogging about all this I’m going to hunt up another music video.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee