The Washington Post’s Strange, Ambivalent Column On For-Profit Colleges

Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews penned a column recently about for-profit colleges — but it reads like he probably didn't want to. Salon's Alex Pareene, for example, characterized it as a "sad defense" of the for-profit industry.

It's important to note that the Washington Post Company owns Kaplan, Inc., of which for-profit educator Kaplan Higher Education is a subdivision. Mathews, who acknowledges that relationship in the column, is careful to argue that for-profits are likely to survive — but not that they're desirable.

"People like me may want for-profits to disappear, but that is not going to happen," he wrote.

"They seem destined to become a significant part of what college means in the United States." At times, it feels as though Mathews might be writing the column under duress—or as though the five points about the staying power of for-profits, which stick pretty closely to industry talking points covered in Kaplan CEO Jeff Rosen's recent book—were added as an afterthought.

Pauline Abernathy, vice president of the Institute for College Access and Success, was critical of Mathews for side-stepping issues of industry regulation and ethics–and for citing Kaplan-funded research without attribution.

In fact, Abernathy notes that even research by the Association of Private Sector College and Universities, an industry trade group formerly known as the Career College Association, has found that students at for-profit colleges are twice as likely to default as those at traditional institutions—even after accounting for differences in student demographics.

“This is non-public data, so there's no way for anybody to question it,” Abernathy said. “To me, what's egregious in the first and third points is that he's not disclosing that these are Kaplan studies.”

Those points allege that for-profit schools take less money from taxpayers than traditional colleges and universities and have higher graduation rates. There’s no mention, however, of the shockingly high number of students who drop out of for-profit schools—left saddled with thousands in student loan debt—and the amount of time it takes students to graduate.

Abernathy also criticized Matthews for comparing private hospitals—highly-regulated institutions—to for-profit colleges, which have resisted stringent regulation.

“In health care, we have much greater regulation on cost and outcome,” she said. “That's all people are asking for in the for-profit and education sectors.”

And the bottom line, she said, is that the survival of for-profit college is a straw man argument. According to Abernathy, the issue isn't about whether for-profits are going to be a permanent presence in the education system—it's about how they can behave ethically and serve their students well.

“No one's actually advocating for the elimination of the for-profits,” Abernathy said. “Most people believe the for-profits are here to stay—it's just that some of us want them to be properly regulated.”


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