Opinion: For-Profits vs Not-for-Profits

When Mitt Romney started plugging his friend’s for-profit university as a solution to the problem of rising higher-education costs, he was surely doing well by a major campaign donor, while giving pretty bad advice to potential students: no one should enroll in an $81,000 21-month program in “video game art” if it has — as this one does — a graduation rate of just 38%.

But Romney’s staking out an important philosophical stance here, too, when he praises the for-profit education industry in general as an affordable alternative to traditional colleges.

How can a company which exists to maximize the profits for its shareholders, and therefore to extract as much money as it possibly can from its students, possibly cost less than a traditional college which is run on a not-for-profit basis and which might well have a substantial endowment subsidizing tuition fees? Most traditional colleges charge some students nothing at all, while at the extreme, Cooper Union has a flat tuition rate of zero. For-profit colleges can’t possibly compete with that.

For-profit colleges have a fiduciary obligation to, basically, take the money and run: once they’ve been paid their tuition fee, they’ve made their money, whether the student continues to show up for class or not. But still, there are two main ways in which they could, at least in theory, compete on price with traditional colleges.

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