I met a woman recently who might occasionally babysit for my son when we are visiting rural Virginia. She seemed unflappable in her oversight of several little kids. We were talking about this and that, and as she reached out to right her daughter on the swing, she said, “I am taking classes online at night.” She is studying for a nursing degree from Kaplan University with the hopes of becoming an ER nurse; forgive me for saying that all I could think about at that moment was the huge debt load of for-profit graduates, Kaplan’s high default rate and stories I have heard about employers rejecting job candidates out-of-hand because their degrees come from for-profits.
Yesterday, “Frontline” aired “College Inc.,” an hour-long piece by correspondent Martin Smith about for-profit universities, which you can watch here. You only had to hear a couple of bars of the background music—is there some sort of musical Getty Images where documentary makers type in “shady character” to yield ominous melodies?—to know that the PBS gang didn’t just share my (and Arne Duncan’s) worries, they were full-throttle harsh on the entire industry. Among the highlights were a former cokehead-turned-for-profit-financier who made telephone deals from an Adirondack chair on the expansive lawn of his coastal estate, and recruitment and lending practices that resemble the worst of the mortgage lenders of the last decade. Former employees explained how they were commanded to exploit whatever soft spot a potential student might have in order to get them in the door.
The most powerful part of the piece was when a group of nursing students talked about how their degree was marked more by false promises and worthless fieldwork than by anything you’d call “education,” and how they emerged from the program ill-credentialed to do the kind of jobs for the kind of salaries that recruiters had promised. I would have liked to learn even more about what the courses and teaching looked like—and surely there were some happy customers who had something worthwhile to say?
Expressing wariness about the industry makes one feel a little classist, as for-profit administrators say that they take the students nobody wants. Okay. But they take them for a hell of a lot of money, resulting in a disproportionate share of financial aid. Why so expensive, beyond the massive marketing budget that “College Inc.” featured?
I cannot say whether the piece was balanced or not, because I have never heard support for the quality of for-profits that did not come from the institutions themselves. If you know of any, please point me there. Is profit-seeking or mass production necessarily incompatible with a decent education? Would it be impossible for for-profits to grow at a rate that pleases investors in a way that still puts a premium on the quality of learning?
Whatever the answers to those questions, the for-profit entrepreneurs did themselves no favor during their “Frontline” interviews. Do you want your education designed by somebody who chuckles at how damn much money he’s made?