For-Profit Colleges Have Lots Of Champions-And Lots Of Problems

Posted on Saturday, November 19 at 11:47 by Ed Deak
Conservatives have hailed the robust for-profit college phenomenon as a welcome infusion of free-market forces into an otherwise bloated higher-education sector. The top official at the Department of Education making decisions about higher education, Bush appointee Sally Stroup, was previously a lobbyist for the Apollo Group. A vigorous champion of proprietary schools, Richard Vedder of AEI was recently named to a blue-ribbon Department of Education commission on the future of higher education that aims to tackle, among other things, the issue of soaring costs. Proprietary schools, among the largest donors to higher-education committee members, not surprisingly also have many loyal Republican supporters in Congress. But before we herald these institutions as the smarter, leaner future of higher education, it is worth scrutinizing their practices and their shady past. There is no question that they are adept at turning a profit. Yet commercial colleges' long history of ethical lapses and the highly uneven quality of their offerings make them a poor model for a higher-education field in crisis. American "career colleges" date back to the 1850s, when H.B. Stratton and P.R. Bryant founded a chain of 50 schools starting in Buffalo, N.Y., to teach shorthand, bookkeeping, and the use of the newfangled mechanical typewriter primarily to women, who were not welcome at most traditional colleges. They occupied cheap rental space in downtown office buildings rather than spending money on leafy campuses. The industry also grew through correspondence courses, which acquired a checkered reputation over the years. For every reputable accounting program, there were hucksters like the bogus art schools that took out the famous "can you draw this?" matchbook ads. As the liberal arts curriculum evolved (or devolved) from the classics, to the humanities, to today's critical-thinking courses and ethnic-studies departments, the need for vocational education remained, and commercial institutions were there to fill it. They attracted underserved students, especially low-income and working adults, by offering accelerated courses with flexible schedules and focusing their pitch on job placement. These schools commonly report placement rates of a credulity-straining 80 percent or 90 percent, no matter what the program; the Department of Education does not track or verify these numbers. Tuition is set far above the rates charged by public community colleges, for-profits' main competitors, yet below those at private nonprofits.


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