Why We Really Need For-Profit Colleges

According to an article by Joe Nocera in the New York Times, we’re all being terribly unfair to for-profit colleges. As he explains:

The most important fact about the industry [is that] the country can’t afford to put it out of business. On the contrary, America needs it — and needs it to succeed — desperately.

To start with the obvious, a college education has never been more necessary for a decent life in America. Many manufacturing jobs now demand a level of skill and education that virtually requires a college degree. A lot of white-collar employers won’t even consider a job applicant who hasn’t graduated from college.

Oh my. That’s an interesting little rhetorical device, isn’t it?

America needs for profit colleges to succeed because working class people go to for-profit colleges? They go to obtain better jobs and “white-collar employers won’t even consider a job applicant who hasn’t graduated from college.” Well yes, but that obscures the somewhat obvious fact that most white-collar employers won’t even consider a job applicant who hasn’t graduated from a real college. Just because working-class people attend for-profit colleges in order to get ahead doesn’t mean going to such colleges actually enables them to get ahead. That’s pretty much the problem.

He goes on, quoting for-profit academic administrators left and right, to place this in societal context:

And yet for the poor and the working class, that education is not easy to attain. State university systems have become increasingly expensive. Community colleges are terribly overcrowded. The schools most capable of meeting the country’s growing education needs are the for-profits. In the decade beginning in 1998, enrollment in public and private universities went up less than 25 percent. Enrollment in the for-profit colleges, meanwhile, was up 236 percent.

This sure sounds convincing. But perhaps it would be more appropriate to move our public educational resources back over to state universities and community colleges rather than just give up and shovel public cash over for-profit training centers.

In truth, America totally needs for-profit colleges, but not for any of the reasons Nocera explains. For-profit colleges are basically vocational schools; they exist to help people get paid more and obtain better jobs. That’s a good thing but it’s not really about compensating for the decline in funding for public higher education. For-profit schools exist to train people to be accomplished mechanics, hairdressers, and plumbers, etc. These are honorable, rather well-paying technical professions in which people can be trained quickly and relatively cheaply. This is precisely what for-profit colleges have existed to do for decades. Indeed, they’re rather good at such training.

Nocera regrets that, as he explains, “the industry’s transgressions have led many critics to conclude that the only way to “fix” for-profit education is to get rid of it entirely.” Well don’t worry, we’re not putting the good for-profits out of business. Indeed, the Department of Education’s new gainful employment rules don’t even put many bad for-profits out of business, at least not for many years.

So sure, we need for-profits. But let’s stop pretending this is an education sector in need of protection. It isn’t, and with a completion rate around the 10 percent realm it isn’t going very far at all in terms of meeting the country’s educational needs.

In truth, it’s just a business sector that might benefit from some serious regulation. This is a group of businesses that depend heavily on public investment. Never mind the education pretenses. Is the public money being well spent?

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