Boom Times in For-Profit Education

Lately it’s been all the rage to complain about companies that are too big to fail. However, there’s another prominent American institution that’s also become too big to fail. It’s bloated, overstaffed and to fails to meet the most basic need of its customers.

Welcome to American higher education.

More Americans are wising up to the fact that college is a big fat waste of money. Sure, if you’re lucky enough, and smart enough, and get into a big-name school, college is just fine. But for millions of other students, a four-year degree often puts them under a mountain of debt and doesn’t give them the skills they need in the job market.

First, let’s consider how long it takes many students to finish college. Even after six years, only 54% of college students even get a degree. For high-school students in the bottom 40% of their class and who go to a four-year college, an amazing two-thirds hadn’t earned a diploma after eight-and-a-half years. Sheesh, that’s worse than Bluto! I can’t think of another industry that has such a dismal record.

As David Leonhardt recently wrote in the New York Times: “At its top levels, the American system of higher education may be the best in the world. Yet in terms of its core mission—turning teenagers into educated college graduates—much of the system is simply failing.” He’s exactly right.

Still, tuition costs continue to skyrocket. Between 1982 and 2007, tuition and fees rose 439% compared with just 147% for median family income. The trend shows no sign of stopping. One year at Yale now goes for $47,500. The University of Florida system wants to raise tuition by 15%, the maximum allowed.

Much like the housing bubble, the Higher Ed bubble is being driven by cheap, government supported credit. The problem is compounded by the fact that hugely important financial decisions are placed on the backs of 19-year-olds, many of whom simply don’t have the life experience to weigh the implications of a gigantic, 20-year debt load. Heck, at least the irresponsible mortgage borrowers during the crazy days were adults (even though many acted like infants).

One report shows that students from lower-income families need to pay 40% of their family income to enroll in a public four-year college. That’s a lot of coin to have some Marxist feminist theorist tell you the about atavistic nature of late-stage capitalism. Please, you can watch the Oscars to learn that. Don’t think community colleges are a bargain, either. The average tuition is up to 49% of the poorest families’ median income from 40% in 1999-2000.

The pro-college crowd likes to repeat the claim that college grads earn $1 million more, on average, over their working lifetime. Sure, this is true, but college grads start out in a big hole.

On average, they don’t even catch up to high school grads until age 33.

The debt load piled on students is scandalous. One in five students who graduated in the 1992–93 school with over $15,000 in debt defaulted on his or her loan within 10 years of graduation. We’re setting young people up for failure and ruin credit records. Thanks to the recession defaults are up 43% over the last two years. Many students go to grad school and pile on even more debt. The average law grad owes $100,000. Plus, many schools often use grad students as greatly underpaid professors in order to cut costs. Think of Lehman Brothers. Now imagine if they had a football team.

The loans fall especially hard on minorities since colleges love to boast their “diversity.” For African-American students, the overall default rate is more than one-third. That’s five times higher than white students and over nine times higher than Asian students.

What makes things even worse for many colleges is that the recent bear market put the squeeze on their endowments. Harvard’s endowment dropped by $11 billion and they announced they’re laying off 25% of their investment staff. Cornell’s endowment plunged 27% in the final six months of 2008. Yale lost $5.9 billion, or one-fourth its value. Lower endowments means… you guessed it, higher tuition.

School financing has exploded in recent years, doubling in just ten years. Total student debt now stands at over half a trillion dollars. The average borrow took out a loan worth $19,200. That’s a 58% jump since 1993.

Naturally, the government is set to make a bad situation worse. Last week, the House of Representatives voted to elbow Sallie Mae (SLM) out of the student loan biz and shift all student loans to a government-run, taxpayer financed system. So instead of government subsidized loans run through banks to students, we’ll now have a government monopoly.

Hmmm…what could possibly go wrong?

I got a better idea. It’s a real simple government program. I call it, “Dude, you really shouldn’t be going to college.” Best of all, the program is very cheap. The costs are solely a postcard and my consulting fee. If you don’t want to listen to me, fine, then listen to the folks at the ACT who say that only 23% of students have the skills to do well in college.

The good news is that Americans are catching on to the college scam. Admissions applications are dropping at elite schools. Applications are off by 20% at Williams College. Middlebury saw a 12% decline and Swarthmore had a 10% drop. I believe this is just the beginning.

The reason I’m so confident is that these are boom times for the for-profit education sector.

Long derided as diploma mills, these companies are raking it. Already this decade, shares of Strayer Education (STRA) are up over 1,000% and shares of ITT Educational Services (ESI) are up over 1,300%.

Business is so strong that the schools are having difficulty even making earnings estimates. In January, ESI issued 2009 EPS guidance of $6.25 to $6.45 which well above the Street’s view of $5.73. Since then, the company raised guidance three times. The current EPS range is now $7.55 to $7.85. In other worlds, no bailouts needed here.

These schools are ideal for older students who are attending school on their own initiative instead of doing what their parents expect. Many of the schools have comprehensive programs but students often go there to take a few courses to round out their job qualifications.

Businesses also like to use the schools for employee training. The graduation rates tend to be high and the default rates are low (though still not ideal as some members of Congress have noted).

I also like the fact that the school has an efficient business mode. Operating margins tend to be high and they businesses don’t drain capital.

Look at the success of a company like Lincoln Educational Services (LINC). A few weeks ago, Lincoln reported blowout Q2 earnings. Check out these digits. Revenue rose 51% and earnings-per-share jumped an astounding 440%. The company netted 27 cents a share which schooled the Street’s consensus of 19 cents a share. On top of that, Lincoln boosted its full-year EPS guidance to a range between $1.40 and $1.45 from their prior range of $1.25 to $1.30.

Who’s laughing at the diploma mill now?

Lincoln is hardly alone. Last month, Corinthian Colleges (COCO) issued 2010 EPS guidance of $1.30 to $1.36 which was well above the Street’s view of $1.14. If COCO hits their range, then we’re talking about a growth rate of over 50%.

The big kid on the block is Apollo Group (APOL) owner of the University of Phoenix which has more than 200 campuses and over 400,000 students. Apollo has a market cap of $10 billion and it’s the only for-profit stock in the S&P 500. The shares have vaulted nearly 100-fold since the IPO 15 years ago. Apollo is doing more than any bureaucrat to reshape the landscape of American higher education. Make no mistake how serious they are. Three years ago, the company shelled out $150 million to turn the home of the Arizona Cardinals into the University of Phoenix stadium.

The for-profit sector still contains many risks. Loan defaults rates are a problem which doesn’t look so good considering the schools have healthy operating margins. The industry was dreading a recent GAO report which turned out to be milder than expected.

Of all the for-profit schools, I think Lincoln Educational Services offers the best value right now. The company just gave a big earnings boost and the shares are now going for about 12 times 2010’s forecast. Strayer, on the other hand, is the one to avoid. The stock is up to 23 times next year’s consensus. For a school stock, that’s not very smart.


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