Blog: Placing the Blame

By now, we’ve grown accustomed to the stinging newspaper articles citing statistics that for-profit college graduates are saddled with more debt than any other grads. We’ve conceded … well, yes, because most of our students are low-income, they often need more assistance than their more affluent counterparts. What about that is so difficult to comprehend, or to include in an accusation? No matter what logic proprietary proponents offer, journalists choose to spin these stories to paint for-profits as greedy monsters.

And on May 28, The New York Times (one of the sources that has shined a spotlight so brightly into the eyes of the for-profits) proved that it is in fact possible to spin massive amounts of debt in a different way … when it’s a different kind of school under the microscope.

"Your Money" columnist Ron Lieber chose to focus his examination on Cortney Munna, a 2005 graduate of New York University. A religious and women’s studies graduate, she’s deferring her loans by taking night classes, and is burdened by over $100,000 in debt with scarce prospects of ‘gainful employment’.

What do you know? In 2010, even graduates of prestigious, private universities can have their rose-colored glasses pulled off by ‘the real world’. So, there’s a start.

But the way in which The Times approaches the issue when it comes to a ‘name brand’ university couldn’t be more different than when a for-profit graduate’s debt is under scrutiny.

Here, even though Lieber does assert that “perhaps the biggest share (of blame) lies with colleges and universities because they have the most knowledge of the financial aid process”, this contention is hidden halfway down the first page, instead of shouted, fingers pointing from the headline and first paragraph, as it so often is in articles focused on for-profit schools.

The article breaks the possible culprits into three categories, with both the parents and the lenders named before the school. And when the blame is finally placed on NYU, it is done so fairly and almost gently.

Consider the following statements, the first made by Lieber in the text, and the second attributed to Joan H. Crissman, interim president and chief executive of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators:

·    “… then there’s a branding problem. Urging students to attend a cheaper college or leave altogether suggests a lack of confidence about the earning potential of alumni. Nobody wants to admit that.”

·    “Aid administrators want to keep their jobs … If the administration finds out that you’re encouraging students to go to a cheaper school just because you don’t think they can handle the debt load, I don’t think that’s going to mesh very well.”

Now imagine that either of these theories were being applied to proprietary schools … I imagine the undertones would be very different.

Maybe Lieber is just a good journalist. Fair, able to state his opinion without too much finger-pointing. This may very well be the case. But still, the signs point to more prestigious universities receiving preferential treatment from the media. However, I think articles like this are progress for our sector. More evidence that student loan debt and economic difficulty aren’t limited to or concentrated on for-profit students can only serve us well.

By Jenni Valentino, Associate Editor, Career College Central

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