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September 02, 2014 1:15 PM Bad Colleges

By Ed Kilgore

For all the attention paid to schools that do well on this or that college ranking system, it’s the flip side of the coin—colleges deemed “bad”—that drives paranoia and resistance to the kind of ratings with consequences the Obama administration contemplates. But that’s inevitably part of any system of school accountability, and given the heavy taxpayer subsidies involved even for private institutions, an unflinching look at the failures as well as the successes is important.

WaMo’s 2014 rankings includes four separate ways of identifying the 20 worst colleges; private for-profit schools tend to pop up a lot on all four but there are significant differences when you emphasize graduation rates or debt levels.

But to illustrate the problems facing schools—and more importantly, students at those schools—that tend to do poorly on such assessments, Matt Connolly and Phillip Longman took an in-depth look at one such institution, Ferrum College, a private non-profit school in southwest Virginia.

[W]hat makes Ferrum really stand out is the way that it scores consistently low across a broad range of performance measures. For example, Ferrum is a pricy place for what it offers. Even with grants and scholarships, the average net price to attend the college and live on campus still came to $19,324 in 2012. Largely as a result, fully 91 percent of Ferrum graduates take on student debt. This is far higher than the average borrowing rate for all private nonprofit four-year institutions in Virginia, which comes to 69 percent. Multiplying these borrowing rates by the amount of debt incurred by each graduate yields a weighted debt average of $26,169 at Ferrum, compared to an average $18,910 for all private nonprofit institutions in the state.
Paying back that much money isn’t easy, because even those Ferrum students who manage to graduate tend to earn less than their counterparts at other comparable Virginia schools. Its accounting grads, for example, earn a median $32,331 per year, compared to $42,086 for those at other Virginia colleges.
All of which leads many Ferrum students into default. Of the 461 who began repaying their student loans in 2009, more than a fifth have defaulted. This compares with a national average three-year default rate for private colleges of 8.2 percent.

One of the reasons Connolly and Longman chose Ferrum for a profile is that it illustrates how appearances and even good intentions can be deceiving. It apparently has a very pleasant campus, and its administration is by no means predatory. But it’s just not getting the job done for many students, and prospective students (not to mention donors and taxpayers) have a right to know about it. And that could even help it improve.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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