For-Profit Colleges Are Bad but, Um, So Are All Other Colleges
by Daniel Luzer
In light of the recent release of Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s report about for-profit colleges, many commentators have responded, either by praising the report or complaining about the senator.
A common criticism comes from a certain segment of the conservative commentariat. The writers argue, with some justification, that it’s unfair to target proprietary colleges specifically.
According to a recent piece by George Leef at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy:
There is a glaring imbalance in the report, however. It analyzed the infamous trio (i.e., waste, fraud, and abuse) solely in the for-profit sector, when non-profit higher education is saturated with them too. Non-profit colleges and universities also recruit students who have doubtful academic ability and motivation, with the idea that good careers await them if they get a degree. They try to fill up their coffers with as much government grant and aid money as possible and many have very low graduation rates—exactly the charges Harkin makes against for-profit schools.
Both for-profit and non-profit higher education have a disease, a disease with the same cause: government subsidies. The senator believes that federal student aid is needed for our national “investment” in education, but he ignores the fact that government investments of all kinds, including non-profit college education, usually turn out to have high cost to benefit ratios.
Sure, but this is like saying the report on the cost of cancer ignored the proliferation of heart disease in America. Sure it did. The two might even have common causes (smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise) but they’re different, and should be evaluated differently.
Leef apparently doesn’t think so. He speculates on Harkin’s thinking about the matter:
Perhaps Senator Harkin only looked into the for-profit sector because he has been misled by the common perception that if a college (or other kind of organization) is officially “non-profit” it must be on the side of the angels.
Well perhaps. A more likely explanation is that for-profit colleges are career colleges. Or, perhaps more appropriately, they are businesses that train people for certain occupations. They exist specifically to help people get paid more money and get better jobs. If they fail to do that, and if they make 90 percent of their revenue from federal grants and loans, they’re a huge waste of taxpayer money. Period.
It’s true that real colleges might also be jacking up their prices to make money from federal grants and loans, but they exist for a different purpose, to educate people in the arts and sciences, and should be evaluated using different criteria. It’s much more difficult to figure out if regular colleges are scamming students, because they simply don’t exist to help students make more money. That’s the only thing for-profit colleges do. Harkin’s investigation didn’t look into traditional colleges because they’re different entities.