For-profit colleges, the election, and the future

One of the most important ways to ensure that federal funds support legitimate higher education opportunities, especially for lower income students, is to maintain a strong state community college and university system. Advisers at these institutions are not compensated based upon how many new enrollments they arrange. Their No. 1 priority is to help the students get an education. The community colleges generally offer a variety of courses from the basic first two years of college to vocational courses in culinary, design and even truck driving. Often these colleges and universities have programs designed to ensure that credits will transfer to other adjacent state systems and most private nonprofit colleges within the state. In this way, they provide additional value to their students.

Unfortunately there is great pressure at this time to cut back on state educational funding. The for-profit schools have an incentive to lobby for these states' "austerity" programs to cripple their competition—public colleges. There have been efforts to resist these cutbacks in one of the most valuable public goods the states can produce, educated citizens. The fight will be a tough one, however, because the public colleges are competing with well-financed for-profit colleges and the attitude of the Republican Party toward the privatization of most aspects of government.

I teach at a for-profit college, and my dad just sent the Truthout post quoted above: "For-Profit Colleges are Bankrolling Romney to keep Student Loan Money Flowing." I wasn't surprised—the entire for-profit college industry relies on subsidized student loans to keep it afloat, so obviously it's going to be in favor of the Republican privatization agenda that prefers to have functions like education taken care of by non-government entities.

In the current American system of higher education, for-profit colleges serve a vital function. There's a tremendous need for adult students to learn the skills that will lift them from service-sector jobs into middle-class jobs, and in many ways the for-profit sector is very good at providing those skills. The colleges' emphasis on profit means that they go out of their way to offer classes at times and places that work for students—including online, like the classes I teach.

This isn't simply a matter of convenience: many of my students are parents and full-time workers who could never go back to school at all if not for the options afforded by my college and institutions like it. I respect my colleagues, who are qualified and dedicated. The education students get at my institution is stripped-down compared to a traditional college education, but that meets the students' needs and helps to keep costs down. It's true that loan default rates are relatively high for students graduating from for-profit colleges, but in part that's due to the fact that these students—the average age at my college is around 28—are going into college with debt and expenses well beyond those that teenagers start with at traditional colleges.

The bottom line is, though, that for-profit colleges are indeed for profit. They have an obvious economic incentive to enroll as many students as possible, even those unlikely to graduate. In part because of threatened legislation, they're now becoming more selective and marketing less aggressively to students who are manifestly not ready for college-level coursework at any institution.

For this reason and others, I agree with the author of the Truthout post that funding public colleges and universities should be a national priority. In a country that desperately needs to improve the quality of its education at all levels to remain competitive in a global economy, college students should have multiple good options—and should be given the information and encouragement to compare among them.

A lot of students at for-profit colleges never really comparison shop: they choose a school because it's easy, and because it makes itself very available via advertising and other means. In fact, when I once asked my students whether they took the college's for-profit status into consideration when deciding to enroll, I learned that many of them didn't even understand what the difference between a for-profit company and a nonprofit organization meant at all.

Ideally, it should be made as easy for students to go to a public college as it is for them to go to a private college, and all institutions should encourage students to carefully consider their options. Now there's free-market competition for you.


Photo: Capella Tower in Minneapolis. Photo by Drew Geraets (Creative Commons).

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Jay Gabler's picture
Jay Gabler

Jay Gabler (@JayGabler) is a digital producer at The Current and Classical MPR.