Does Knowledge Come at a Price?

Do US for-profit colleges widen access to universal education or are they just a way to make money? US for-profit colleges, such as the 373,000-strong University of Phoenix, account for about 12 per cent of students in US higher education, including a quarter of management students.

In recent years, growth at these institutions has far outstripped the rest of the sector. Enrolment grew 236 per cent between 1998-99 and 2008-09, compared with just 20 per cent at non-profit and public colleges.

But while some view this as a story of widening access and opportunity, others are not so sanguine. Critics point to complaints on internet sites, the testimony of ex-students at various Senate hearings, or evidence gathered by state attorneys. To the industry’s detractors, such material reveals a pattern of excruciating student debt, aggressive recruiting and marketing and less-than-stellar academic standards. They note that for-profit colleges account for 47 per cent of student loan defaults, implying an imbalance between tuition cost and subsequent earning power.

“Over the decades, the sector has taken a fairly clear mandate to prepare people for gainful employment, and twisted it by offering completely worthless programmes,” says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

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