Blog: Rebuttal to ‘Learning from For-Profits’

By Michael Platt

Yesterday, Inside Higher Education presented its coverage of the TIAA-CREF Institute’s 2010 Higher Education Leadership Conference held in New York last week. In a piece titled, "Learning from For-profits," journalist Jack Stripling wrote about a panel moderated by Guilford College President Kent Chabotar in which higher education leaders — one from for-profit schools and another from traditional schools — discussed "areas where the two sectors could learn from one another."

While the article sought to portray the panel as a "meeting of the minds," there was some information offered by Stripling and one comment from NPR senior news analyst Cokie Roberts that was inaccurate, misguided, and unjustified. The following are my thoughts on these troubling areas in the story that needed more explanation and clarification.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has focused intently on what he describes as the bad actors among proprietary institutions, where there’s some evidence that students have been deceived about the true costs of attendance and their likely employment prospects upon completion of programs.

The fact that Harkin refuses to address the same issues with community colleges or universities, is evidence that this is not about consumer protection.  It is a kangaroo court.  Harkin is a pawn in Obama/Duncan/Shireman plan to eliminate for-profit education.  His hearings have been loaded with people speaking against the sector.  He has an end goal and a strategy and has enacted it brilliantly.

“But I have to tell you, the biggest objection to [regulation] has come from the fact that The Washington Post would go out of business if Kaplan went out of business – yes, I see Peter Smith waving,” Roberts said with a chuckle. “Because The Washington Post money all comes from Kaplan and the Democrats don’t want The Washington Post to go out of business, so I think there are a lot of forces militating against those rules at the moment.”

This suggestion has no substance.  If it were so, the attacks would never have begun and they would not have focused on Kaplan schools to the degree they have.

For-profit colleges receive about a quarter of all Pell Grant and federal aid, according to the Federal Student Aid Data Center. These institutions enrolled 3.2 million students, or 11.8 percent of the 27.4 million students in the postsecondary population, during the 2008-09 academic year, according to the Education Department.

The point made above is simply a twisted, myopic view, designed to invoke negative judgment towards for-profit schools.  When you add in the cost of actually running a school, the community colleges and universities receive an inordinate amount of tax-payer dollars, the percentage being significantly higher the 88.2% of the students enrolled in their schools.  The TRUE and COMPLETE cost of education suggests that for-profits cost the tax-payers much less than the community colleges and universities, AND generate tax revenue. Add it up and it’s simply a silly distinction. Why do you think even in K-12 schools, parents that can afford to send their kids to private schools (which are for-profit) often chose to do so?

At the end of the day, unless you understand the real agenda here, you waste a lot of time trying to evaluate the value of for-profit schools and the damage they are accused of causing to American consumers.  The reality is that they serve populations not served by the not-for-profit schools, serve the needs of a rapidly changing economy much more effectively than their not-for-profit counterparts, and have successfully adhered to numerous regulations (imposed on them ONLY, the distinction being that they dare to make a profit) that most not-for-profit schools would fail to achieve, including graduation rates and placement rates.  While community colleges and universities are run by academics focused on defending 100-200 year old methodology (under the guise of “academic integrity”), the for-profit sector continues to work hard to be the best SO THAT they can enroll more students and make more money.

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