The Prejudicial Inquisition Continues
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Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Here’s a slightly altered quote from an Inside Higher Education column:
Critics charge that tuition is too high and students are graduating with unmanageable debt. The job market has taken a nosedive, and many graduates are in jobs they could do just as well without their degree -- if they are employed at all. And some schools have been accused of deliberately deceiving applicants about the quality of their job prospects -- and U.S. News about the quality of their applicants.
No, this isn’t more fallout from the Senate HELP Committee hit piece on for-profit schools that was released earlier this week. You’d be forgiven for thinking that it is. These are charges leveled at America’s law schools, public and private alike. And the charges come from within the sector, with law professor Brian Tamanaha of the Washington University in St. Louis’ School of Law.
I, for one, am confused. I am lead by some in Congress to believe that only for-profit schools would ever engage in deceptive practices, would charge high tuition for vocational programs that would knowingly not yield a well-paying job, or would leave their graduates with burdensome debt. How could it be that these “honorable” law schools would be doing the same?
A better question might be: Why are law schools not receiving anywhere near the same scrutiny as for-profit schools? Better yet, why aren’t we scrutinizing all of higher education the way we scrutinize for-profit schools?
The holes in the Senate Committee report are numerous, and it becomes readily apparent that filling them risks asking difficult questions about other sectors of higher education. For one, the report claims that tuition at for-profit schools is 19% higher than comparable public four-year institutions and roughly four times higher than public associate degree and certificate programs. What it leaves out is that non-profit, private four-year schools have tuition that is nearly double that of public institutions, and that non-profit private associate degree and certificate programs charge comparable tuition to their for-profit counterparts. It also leaves out the tuition costs that have been hidden by the heavy subsidization of public colleges by state and local governments.
The report makes a lot of noise about students withdrawing from for-profit schools at an alarming rate. Of course, it also acknowledges that the problems of for-profit schools are not isolated to their sector alone. The admission is conveniently buried on page 91, but here it is:
However, community colleges clearly struggle to provide nontraditional students with the support they need to complete programs and appear to have slightly worse to comparable student outcomes than for-profit colleges.
The report further blasts for-profit institution recruiting practices. I will make absolutely no defense to fraudulent marketing practices. It’s illegal for a reason. The only thing I would add is that I’d love to see Congress go after public and non-profit institutions for their deceptive marketing with equal vigor. For what it’s worth, Senators Barbara Boxer and Tom Coburn did ask the Department of Education some questions regarding the practices of law schools last year. One notably absent signatory was Senator Tom Harkin, mastermind of this particular report.
The second criticism the report levies regards how much money these schools invest in recruiting. Call me crazy, but shouldn’t we be investing a lot of money into telling people that A) they need more education and B) that it’s not too late for them to go back to school? This is something that’s been woefully deficient in our society, and frankly, it’s a practice I’d happily argue that our traditional institutions should adopt, not shun. When we have a 3.5 million job skills gap persisting and increasing in our nation, we should be doing everything we can to turn more people into lifelong learners. These for-profit schools deserve a medal for spending a lot on recruiting, not condemnation.
The report goes on to bash a lack of career placement services, student support services, and academic quality. But it fails to note that these are all major problems at most institutions of higher education. It’s why we have so many postsecondary programs that are misaligned to labor market needs. It’s why we have a national median completion rate of 54.5% for four-year institutions and 20.5% at two-year institutions. And it’s why we have more than a third of students not demonstrating any learning gains over four years of college.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that everything’s rosy at for-profit institutions, because they’re not. But I’m also not going to lie to you by omission and pretend that things are just fine everywhere else in higher education. The problems plaguing the for-profit schools are acute because they overwhelmingly enroll high risk students. These are the students who need a second chance and are desperate to improve their lot in life. It only stands to reason that the problems are going to be far more pronounced in this sector of higher education than elsewhere. But make no mistake that these problems do very much exist at nearly every college and university in the nation—public, non-profit, and for-profit alike.
These are also the same students that the HELP Committee report notes that public higher education doesn’t have the capacity to serve. If we continue to prejudicially attack this sector while doing nothing to examine every other part of higher education, we’ll have improved absolutely nothing while leaving those with the greatest need nowhere to go for help.