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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

School for Scoundrels

Last week, while reading an article about the lobbying efforts of for-profit education providers and growing steadily angrier, I was brought up short by the following:

"In a coordinated approach that also included Capitol Hill protests, petition drives, newspaper ads and more, industry advocates stressed that jobs. . .would be lost if the institutions were put out of business. They questioned why nonprofit schools were untouched. And they accused the administration of highlighting some abuses to stigmatize an industry that educates second-chance students shunned by traditional academia."
("With Lobbying Blitz, For-Profit Colleges Diluted New Rules")
Right!  Pity the poor unfortunate students cast aside by the unfeeling guardians of the ivory tower!

Let's talk about these "second-chance students shunned by traditional academia."  Certainly, not everyone possesses the intellectual chops to flourish at Harvard or Berkeley or the University of Chicago.  Indeed, even lesser institutions of higher learning prove daunting to students who may well have struggled through high school or GED programs.  But there is an option for these students--an option that doesn't require students to take out massive loans or receive huge taxpayer-financed subsidies: It's called community college.

As I've mentioned before in this space, a student at a California community college can currently complete an entire associates degree (60) units for a little under $1,800; tuition costs are scheduled to increase, but a 60-unit associates degree will still cost under $2,500.  More to the point, many of these "second-chancers" pursue not degrees, but certificates--certificates that will enable them to pursue employment in the very vocational fields like automotive repair and culinary arts in which many of these for-profit schools specialize.  A certificate is typically about 18 units--or less than $800 in tuition, even taking into account the new, higher costs.  Compare this to the thousands of dollars typically charged by a for-profit institution.  Even an at-risk, second-chance student can do that math.

Market fundamentalists need to accept the fact that there are some things that for-profit enterprises do not do well.  One of those things is education.  There is an inherent contradiction in the mission of an organization that needs to maximize profits while providing a service that--if done right--may dissatisfy its clients.  And there is a problem when private profits are generated by the provision of public funds: The whole reason those lobbyists are lobbying is to ensure that their clients can continue to offer financial aid packages including federal student loans.

In the case of for-profit education, you get far less than what you pay for.  Stick to the public schools, and you'll get far more.

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