Tuesday, May 04, 2010

For-profit colleges and universities... (UPDATED 10:17 a.m. 5-5-10)

1st UPDATE: InsideHigherEd.com offers another opinion of the Frontline program. I urge you to read it.

ORIGINAL POST: ...are an appealing but potentially flawed option for people interested in furthering their education.

Tonight, PBS' Frontline aired a highly critical report about a growing segment of this higher-education spectrum. I began the evening skeptical of for-profits, and I end it convinced there is something wrong with a university seeking to profit from its educational mission.

And please spare me the argument that non-profit institutions have endowments and other tax breaks that allow them to become fantastically wealthy; you and I know that financial model is NOT the same as turning a profit.

Perhaps the most damning criticism of for-profit schools, including the University of Phoenix, Grand Canyon University and many others, is that they graduate 10 percent of all college graduates but are responsible for 44 percent of all student-default loans.

Consider that statistic again -- almost one in two for-profit graduates cannot repay their student loans and must default on them. The ramifications of such a decision were outlined in the Frontline piece; the one that I found most damaging was that a student-loan default makes a person ineligible for a job with the federal government. Do you see the irony of getting an education and perhaps not being able to use it?

How a near 50 percent failure rate can be considered a good return on investment is beyond me. I accept that the for-profit institution is not solely responsible for this failure rate; however, the statistic suggests an industry caring more about putting money in the pockets of its investors rather than its students.

I accept that traditional colleges and universities are under pressure to admit more students than ever. The "value" of a college education is ingrained in the minds of American citizens, and the necessity for one is increasingly important in this technologically connected world. You probably are aware of the statistic (and if someone reading this can point me to the source of it, please do) that a college graduate is likely to earn $1,000,000 more over a lifetime than someone without one.

I also accept that there are countless numbers of young men and women in college classrooms who ought not be. But as the Frontline story suggested, the pressure on enrollment advisers and recruiters to get students into for-profit institutions ensures that a less-than-desirable portion of the student body (and that term refers to their ability to handle being in college; do not attempt to place other words in my mouth) will face long odds to complete their academic program, or find employment consistent with their academic degree if they do graduate.

I've been part of higher education as an undergraduate student, a graduate student and a professor for almost half my life; I'm aware that it is not perfect. Creativity can be squashed, ridiculous politics too often stand in the way of progress, the pressure of publish-or-perish infects too many larger institutions, turf wars are too often the norm and progress often is measured in decades. But the system works.

The same cannot be said for for-profit institutions.

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