Weighing the Cost

The Department of Education’s release of new rules governing for-profit colleges has spurred a number of pieces about the proprietary schools. Most of the pieces are pretty critical. But the Wall Street Journal ran a piece by one defender of the industry, and this time it wasn’t the Career College Association’s Harris Miller.

Henry Bienen writes that for-profit colleges offer opportunities and, well, no one’s real sure that they don’t work:

Of course, state and federal governments should insist that for-profits and nonprofits alike be transparent with regard to student debt, graduation rates and job placement. At present, the data are incomplete and imperfect. They can also be misleading.

For example, when parents and students decide to pay or borrow for education, they weigh the cost against a lifetime of future earnings. But snapshots of earnings immediately after graduation are poor predictors of lifetime earnings, especially in the present labor market.

This is an interesting point but somewhat misleading. The difference between for-profit colleges and regular ones is not merely tax structure. For-profit schools are career colleges; they exist specifically to help people get paid more. For people who take out large loans to attend career colleges, their goal is to get paid more, immediately. “A lifetime of future earnings” is one thing. In terms of for-profit schools, however, what matters most is a month of earnings and how much of that goes back to the banks.

Henry Bienen was the president of Northwestern University from 1994 to 2009. He is now vice chairman of the board at Rasmussen Inc., a for-profit college with branches in Minnesota, North Dakota, Florida, Wisconsin and Illinois.

Daniel Luzer

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