Can We Reform For-Profit Colleges NOW?

Ah, higher education. A crucial aspect of the American Dream, another tug on the bootstraps to a better life, lifting yourself out of poverty, conquering the world with degree in hand and carpetbag in the other. And surely, an educated populace is a more skilled populace, one that can revive the economy, ensure we don’t experience shortages of needed professionals, and one that can innovate to make this country great in the eyes of the world with inventions, ideas, and concepts that change the way we live and interact with the world.

One might think that as something so universally improving, college would be available for free or at low cost, but of course, one would be wrong. Even ‘public education’ in the United States is costly in many regions, making it difficult if not impossible to afford for people from low-income backgrounds. Default on student loan debt is on the rise thanks to climbing tuition costs, low entry-level wages, and a brutal economy that prefers to knock graduates around the ring for a few bouts rather than hiring them.

But in the for-profit college sector, things are even worse. An estimated 50-70 percent of people leave for-profit colleges with no terminal degree, but that doesn’t mean they’re not in debt for the semesters they did attend. Most of those people are low-income, and many have further constraints on their lives: they’re busy thanks to being single parents, they’re veterans dealing with health problems, they’re people of colour confronting racial imbalances in society that will make it that much harder to get a job without a diploma.

We have ample evidence that for-profits prey on their ‘customers,’ through abusive recruiting practices, crafty advertisements, and more. They know which markets they’re most likely to succeed in, and they go right for them, skipping over consumers who might be able to make more informed, thoughtful, and ultimately wise choices about their education. They lure people with promises of high-paying jobs after they graduate from accelerated degree programmes, and conveniently don’t mention their high attrition rate, and the high rate of student debt for graduates.

The median debt for people leaving for-profit colleges, whether they have degrees or not, is $32,700. Contrast that with public schools ($20,000) and private ($24,600). Going to a for-profit college will saddle you with more debt than going to a private non-profit, despite claims that private schools are painfully expensive and they’re impossible to attend unless you’re independently wealthy. While many are expensive, they offer a generally higher quality of education, and they also have much higher graduation rates as well as a commitment to students over profits. They’re not accountable to shareholders, but to students and alumni, who determine the course of the college’s management and direction.

The Obama Administration has repeatedly tried to reform for-profit colleges. It’s attempted to put restrictions on PLUS loans, taken out by parents to support children in schools. It’s proposed that colleges be excluded from government funding unless their attrition rate is below a certain percentage, and it’s proposed crackdowns on exploitative advertising and recruitment practices. Bills have even made it into Congress to tackle some of the worst abuses of the industry, only to be carefully defanged and eviscerated on the floor by Congresspeople more afraid of lobbyists than their own constituents.

When is the time that we reform for-profit colleges? How long do we need to wait? In a midterm election year, are we going to be told that politicians need to stick to the middle of the road and noncontroversial activity to avoid making waves? Next year, are we going to be informed that the Obama Administration can’t take stances on ‘radical’ reforms for fear of upsetting the populace and endangering the Democratic turnout in 2016? In 2016, will we learn that such reforms aren’t worth pushing through if there’s a risk they’ll undermine the Democratic candidate and simply get turned around in 2017?

Is there ever going to be a ‘right moment’ for reforming for-profit colleges and forcing them to adhere to some basic standards of decency in their business practices and financial activities? These institutions are filling themselves from the government tap, sucking away money that could be put to much better purposes elsewhere, and they are doing so with no remorse. In fact, they have entire legal and advisory teams who spend a great deal of time coming up with new ways to do it, how to extract more money, how to abuse students even further.

Students in this model aren’t people attending college for an education. They are walking moneybags to be shaken in order to see how many bills fall out. For-profits aren’t concerned about completion rates, supporting students through school, and the quality of their educational programmes. What they want is money, lots of it, as much money as possible, and they don’t really care about how transparent their drive for profit at all costs is, because they know no one’s going to stop them.

Is this the status quo we want to leave them with, and live with, though? I don’t think it is. For-profits are a plague on the United States, besmirching the education system (which is in need of much larger and more comprehensive reforms) even as they endlessly consume government funds in a furnace of greed. When can we reform them? How about now?