College Inc.

Did any of you catch the Frontline last night, College Inc.It was pretty simplistic, but it underscored the fatuousness of all of the scrutiny on traditional public higher ed when contrasted with the total absence of regulation of for-profit institutions that are essentially mechanisms for defrauding the federal student loan program.  Yes, friends–that’s where the profit is.  These “universities” admit students who are unprepared or unqualified for college-level work, hook them up with student loans, take that money, and then spend 20-25% of their budget on advertising and promotions to lure in new marks (and only 10-15% of their budget on instruction!)  Then they spit the students out with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, and few if any real job prospects.

Nice.  But, it’s the American way.

There was a little entertainment value in the interview with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who is in fact just as dumb and unprepared as I told you he was.  I guess there’s more money and political advantage in beating up on public schoolteachers than in strictly regulating for-profit colleges, although their business model is clearly profiteering on the public dime and contributing little, if anything, to actual education.

0 thoughts on “College Inc.

  1. Historiann, I’m afraid you are continuing to miss the point. Recent history has absolutely proven that the public sector cannot get anything done correctly, while the private sector has proven that it is amply able to regulate itself. Excess government involvement in private functions like the economy, the environment, and education does nothing but hamper that exceptional American ingenuity that has given us such innovations as the cotton gin and the steamboat.


  2. We watched it with sadness. While for-profits aren’t quite as entrenched here in Canada (but the ‘University of Phoenix’ has a presence within our borders now, eep!), they also have a much higher default rate and a much lower “quality assurance” for the degrees and certifications they offer. Some are good, focused institutions but many are all smoke and mirrors.

    And when you think of the billions siphoned off from actually providing education? It’s maddening.


  3. Because the for-profit institutions are the “competition,” community colleges are supposed to emulate them. At least that is what I hear around my place. Because, you know, capitalism and private businesses are wise and all-knowing about the best way to do things, and teachers are just washed up leftists who want to hide from the real world.

    I just read about this at Dean Dad’s on Inside Higher Ed. Some of the comments there — and in general on Inside Higher Ed when the conversation revolves around such topics — indicate that writing columns there is not simply preaching to the choir. Apparently lots of haters hang around discussion of higher education. In fact, apparently, lots of haters are employed in non-faculty roles within higher education.


  4. It wasn’t on my public TV station last night, or it came on after my bedtime. But it doesn’t sound as if I missed anything.


  5. Clio B., I saw “Dean Dad’s” review too. As usual, he’s not too eager to stand up for faculty values. (The values of faculty in traditional colleges and unis, that is.) I can partially understand why, since he’s at a CC, and feels some of the pressures you mention, I am sure. But to me, his complaint that the show was “one-sided” seems foolish. Is there in fact a virtuous side to the welfare queen strategy of these for-profit scams? I don’t see it. The numbers speak for themselves, both in terms of the debt that students at these schools accumulate, and their notable lack of success in finding employment in the fields for which they’ve trained. (They do make traditional public and even private unis look like a fantastic value by comparison, I have to say. But given that, why are we the ones subject to all of the regulatory oversight? I heard on the radio last night that Baa Ram U. gets LESS THAN 5% of its annual budget from the state of Colorado. What about my uni is public, exactly, with that kind of cheap-a$$itude?)

    And Susan: for those of us who are in higher ed and have paid attention to the rise of the for-profits, I don’t think there was a lot of new information there, or any ideas that might have changed your mind.

    Janice, I’m sorry to hear that Phoenix has moved north of the border. Please encourage your provincial and national officials to crack down on these scammers!


  6. I may be naive, but a lot of that program was new to me. I was particularly stunned to find out that tuition at a private mostly online college is three to four times more than a state school. Pay more for a worse education. Stunning really. No wonder 50% of student loan defaults now come from students who went to for-profit colleges.

    If you follow Historiann’s link at the top of her post you can watch the whole thing online. I definitely think it’s worth an hour of any academic’s time. Even if it’s just reinforcing what you already knew, it’s useful to hear the numbers to back up your position.


  7. Jonathan–thanks for clicking and watching! I’ve been disturbed by the growth and proliferation of these for-profit schools for the past decade or so. They were so clearly preying on the (very real) fears and insecurities of people who probably weren’t well-served by their secondary educations. If you know of any friends, family members, or students in that situation, DO NOT LET them attend these institutions. Send them to a community college, where they can test their skills and see if college is for them. Most CCs have pretty open enrollment, and it’s a lot less expensive to give college a try in that environment. Besides, they’re accredited, and they have connections in their communities that can lead to better employment for their grads.

    The for-profit scamsters don’t give a crap about their students once the loan check is cashed. I’m betting that there are some faculty who feel more obligated to their students than the admin, but I really wonder about the faculty who teach in these institutions. (My bet is that these institutions benefit massively by the huge labor oversupply of people with M.A.s and Ph.D.s who want to teach. . . but the program didn’t look at all at the faculy in these “schools.”)


  8. I was stunned by the “nursing” students who paid 30k for a 12-month program. Where in the world is that money going? There’s no room and board, and I can’t imagine the faculty are getting paid at rates that would require that type of inflated pricetag.

    It seems to me this speaks to the larger issue of “insta-education.” Part of the appeal of these programs is that they promise a much faster degree than a CC or a 4-year university, and I imagine a lot of the “work” is done on-line, so they can also pitch flexibility. No wonder people find them attractive, in spite of the price tag. Too bad they are all empty promises.

    And I totally agree on Arne Duncan. Could he be less on top of the situation?


  9. Maybe the instructors trying to do a good job are the only possible virtue of the whole situation? Then, again, what are the qualifications to teach there? What are the courses like, especially the online ones?

    To be wholly naive and maybe a little bit rhetorical: why, for the love of all that is intelligent, aren’t these places regulated; and what will have to be done to get them regulated? How can they run an unaccredited school? This has the stench of illegality about it, or a major class action suit.


  10. As to who’s teaching there? I had a problematic M.A. student a few years back. Would have been a B-minus undergrad. Kind of barely squeaked through the M.A. program, and probably shouldn’t have. Why was he there? Because he needed a Master’s degree to teach history at University of Phoenix. So you can take that either way you like: not just anyone can walk off the street and teach at these places (at least this one), but those who do are not necessarily the cream of the crop.

    Then again, with the job market for advanced degree-holders being what it is, I wonder if we’re going to see some qualified people who can’t find jobs in traditional academia getting hired by the for-profits. That could be interesting.


  11. ej–I think you’re exactly right that this is tied into conversations we’ve been having here all week long about the pressure on universities and their faculties to do more for less, and faster, too. The commentators who were arrayed against the for-profit colleges raised the issue of marketing convenience and speed versus quality and rigor.

    Of course, you might think that $30,000 for a one-year program was worthwhile, IF it actually delivered what a 2-year associate’s degree or a 4-year B.S. in nursing delivered. But my fear is that the people who fall prey to these marketing pitches are vulnerable to them precisely because they are unfamiliar with college and don’t have a lot of friends or family members who have been to college. If you don’t know what goes on in college or why it takes most people 4 years to get a B.A. or a B.S., you might be more willing to believe the blandishments of these for-profit universities.


  12. Notorious, I wish you were joking about the B- student skating through your M.A. on the way to teach at the ‘University of Phoenix’.

    We are admitting very few M.A. students, now, who can’t make an A- average after realizing that few the B+ applicants we received could research and write at the M.A. level. The thought of these people TEACHING our undergrads? Fills me with panic.

    And given yesterday’s topic here about the push to credential high school teachers to offer college credits? There’s a definite move to revamp higher education into a profit centre as opposed to an actual educational system.


  13. Janice–that’s my fear exactly. And it’s why the faculty need to stand against it. Yes, four-year degree programs cost money and time. But given the contrast to the result for students (much lower debt and much better employment prospects) it looks like a better investment in the end than these scammer for-profit unis.

    Clio asks the right question: “why, for the love of all that is intelligent, aren’t these places regulated; and what will have to be done to get them regulated?”

    I think having a Secretary of Education who’d rather crack down on criminals and fraudsters than elementary and secondary school teachers might help. Accountability is only for the public school teachers, I guess. Seriously: watch the show. Duncan mostly shows up in the second half, but he is stunning in his half-wittery. Again: a typical educrat who knows the buzzwords and the lingo, but has zero ACTUAL experience with education at ANY level of the curriculum.


  14. Janice’s reaction to my M.A. student dovetails nicely with something I just heard as I was listening to the video:

    Arne Duncan: “If you’re paid based on how many people you’ll enroll, you’ll enroll just about anyone.”

    At my four-year M.A. comprehensive, I don’t know precisely how the numbers work, but I’ve been given to understand that the M.A. students are very profitable, and not subject to the same enrollment caps that the undergrad program is at this time. So we’re pressured to increase enrollments in our M.A. program. In some ways, we’re sliding into the same model as the for-profits, with similar results: unqualified students, and a devalued degree. Some of us more idealistic faculty (including our Graduate Advisor) are pushing back, but only with limited success.

    I’m listening to the portion on debt right now, and I’m growing increasingly horrified.


  15. I missed the show, but will try to watch it online.

    I was curious about who was teaching history at the U. of Phoenix, so I went to their website. There is no history dept., but there is a Humanities division, which profiles three faculty members – the only one really doing history is as follows:

    “[Professor PSH] has been teaching sociology and history courses at University of Phoenix since 2008. She holds a Ph.D. in Higher Education and a Master of Arts in History from the University of Arizona.

    She is a professional member of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the American Historical Association and the Association for the Study of Higher Education.

    She has 20 years of experience in higher education including 17 years spent teaching, developing and evaluating curriculum. Her professional experience also includes being an archivist, faculty member and administrator.

    Her areas of interest include early American history, women’s studies, and higher education policy.”

    Somehow, I don’t think what she is teaching is equivalent to the courses taught by some great historians I know at local community colleges – at least they all have Ph.D.s in history.


  16. Hey, folks, let’s remember Arne Duncan’s unique qualification: he’s definitely the best basketball player to serve as Secretary of Education, as more than one adoring profile emphasized. How can you be so critical just because he has no idea what he’s talking about or what happens in classrooms at pretty much any level?


  17. Well, Tony, in this respect he is an excellent Sec. of Ed.: the Athletic Department has never had a greater or more sympathetic friend than Duncan. And since we all know that public and private non-profit unis exist to field farm clubs for the NFL and the NBA, that’s where our financial priorities should be.

    Gad, what a dope. (Duncan, not Grafton.)


  18. The other thing about who is teaching: in the online instruction at the for profits, the model is that they pay a lot up front to develop a course, and then the course is “delivered” by someone else. What that persons qualifications are is basically irrelevant, because they are delivering canned material.


  19. I watched and was amazed at how much federal loan money is involved in these colleges. I might be the only Historiann reader who watches bad TV during the day while I fold my laundry, and I am consistently horrified by the sheer volume of for profit college ads I see. The ads are so blatantly aimed at unsuspecting/uneducated people.


  20. Clio: How can they run an unaccredited school?

    This is the first place my focus turned to. U-Phoenix is accredited. Not sure about the others. If they are accredited then maybe that system needs adjusting. I’m not very knowledgeable about it beyond everyone making a fuss whenever it’s our turn (though we don’t make nearly as much of a fuss as the CC I taught at).

    The student loan issue’s the other problem. I’d sure hate to do anything that could even hint at reducing the program since I think we desperately need to expand it (as well as our investment in “pure” theoretical science) but maybe someone needs to look at institutional eligibility.


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