Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Despite Bad Marks, For-Profit Colleges Still Passing

• December 02, 2011 • 1:58 PM

While for-profit higher education draws federal ire over student loans and unrealistic promises, the sector still fills an important vocational niche.

It has been a rough stretch in Washington for for-profit higher education. The Obama administration has fought to tighten regulations linking student aid to graduates’ “gainful employment” prospects. Consumer advocacy groups have spotlighted the debt load that often comes unaccompanied by diplomas. Hollister Petraeus, the wife of David Patraeus, has been leading a crusade against for-profit schools that pursue veterans (and their lucrative G.I. benefits).

And recently, the Government Accountability Office detailed an undercover investigation in which fictitious students enrolled and performed poorly at for-profits, frequently without penalty. (“For example, one student submitted photos of celebrities and political figures in lieu of essay question responses but still earned a passing grade.”)

The for-profit sector counters that critics unfairly target it for problems equally prevalent at nonprofits (all of those jobless 99 percenters protesting their student loan debt did not go to the University of Phoenix). And they make one compelling argument: for-profit schools fill a need no one else will.

This last point is supported by the long history of for-profits in the United States, which dates back a century and more before the rise of Phoenix. The history reveals an industry whose good and bad fortunes have long been tied to federal student aid, leading to the moment today when the sector relies – unlike its nonprofit counterparts — almost exclusively on government student loan money. But history also suggests that there’s nothing inherently unworkable about the for-profit model — and that, going forward, such schools will have to play some role in U.S. education.

The earliest for-profit schools, dating to the 1820s, were mom-and-pop institutions that offered practical training for local industries as apprenticeships were fading out. More revealing, though, is what nonprofit schools were up to the time.

“They were still teaching Greek and Latin and a classical curriculum, a very standardized curriculum that wasn’t intended to have any sort of practical application whatsoever,” said Kevin Kinser, a professor at State University of New York-Albany who has extensively researched nontraditional higher education. “That was specifically rejected as a model for education in this period.”

[class name="dont_print_this"]

Idea Lobby

THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

[/class]

At the time, federal student aid didn’t exist. It didn’t become available until the 1917 Smith-Hughes Act, which specifically provided funding for vocational training — but excluded for-profits. Throughout much of their history, such schools didn’t offer degrees, and they were viewed as something apart from higher education. They became eligible, however, for the post-World War II G.I. Bill, and that era presaged some of the problems skeptics associate with them today.

“It caused a lot of trouble,” Kinser said, “because there was really no federal way of identifying what was a legitimate institution of higher education. So you had a lot of fly-by-night institutions that were emerging to get this new money that was coming in.”

The college accreditation system launched as a result, and when the 1965 Higher Education Act was passed, creating Pell Grants, for-profit schools were once again excluded. They successfully lobbied by 1972 to expand eligibility to institutions not just granting degrees, but also preparing students for “gainful employment” — ironically, the language that now bedevils them today.

In the 1970s and ’80s, federal aid shifted largely from Pell Grants to more widely accessible student loans, transforming for-profits and nonprofit education alike. For-profit schools during this era transitioned away from local workforce training (where the local workplaces offered the promise of paid tuition) into a national model of Internet-based distance learning financed by student loans. For-profit powerhouses DeVry and the University of Phoenix went public on the stock market in the early 1990s. And as many schools began to offer degree programs — even doctorates — the distinction between for-profit trade programs and actual higher education blurred.

“It was formerly pretty easy to ignore the for-profit sector, they were small, they were practically a rounding error when you looked the size of higher education,” Kinser said. “That’s no longer the case when you’re representing something like 10 percent of enrollment, 25 percent of the Pell Grants, when you’ve got campuses in just about every state in the U.S. That makes it kind of hard to think about them as being irrelevant to higher education, and higher education planning in the country.”

Their critics, Kinser said, over-emphasize the business model of giant corporations like Phoenix. But the industry’s defenders, he adds, often over-emphasize an educational model that normalizes failure. For-profits enroll from a population that’s less likely to be successful, this logic goes, and so we should all focus on those who graduates and not the many students who don’t.

In reality, Kinser said, for-profits need reform, but they can also teach traditional schools a few things about recruiting minorities and serving adult learners. And, in at least one way, they can’t be replaced.

“For-profit schools are absolutely necessary when it comes to the non-degree function,” he said, referring to the vocational programs for those interested in gaining job skills but perhaps not training in Greek or Latin. “There’s no real way you could deal with the non-degree enrollment without a for-profit sector, it just isn’t practical.”

That is to say, in Kinser’s view, there’s nothing fundamentally flawed about an educational model that makes a profit.

“If we can conceptualize hospitals run for profit — and that’s a much more like life-and-death scenario than education,” he said, “I don’t see why we can’t do the same with for-profit education.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.