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.”
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