As I write this, I’m watching an episode of my favorite trashy talk show, in which the majority of advertisers are for-profit colleges and personal injury law firms. I’m going to keep a running tally of how many commercials for the former air during this one hour of television. This will serve as an illustration of a point made by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and others in a report on for-profit colleges: The $32 billion in federal funding they receive is far from a worthwhile investment. As if we didn’t already know.
As of 2010, the graduation rate at for-profit colleges across the country was 22 percent, and the median debt for their students was almost twice that of students who attended private universities. The report named a number of steps Congress could take to make these colleges more accountable for those funds: “more rigorous” performance standards, preventing them from spending the money on marketing and minimum standards of student services, i.e. job search assistance and tutoring.
Attacking these colleges for their students failing to find jobs after graduation is a bit spurious; one could easily chalk that up to poor economic conditions. But there are other contingencies for continued federal support they could consider. For example, do they make a concerted effort to help students find jobs, as the ads always claim, or not? Do they really pay their executives based on profits instead of outcomes? Can their recruiting practices charitably be described as “deceptive?” All signs point to yes.
Frankly, none of this surprises me. This has a chance of happening whenever a public or partially public service – education, health care, corrections – is performed by a for-profit entity. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s certainly likelier to happen under that circumstance, and something every student should fear if they know that their school bases its success on how much money it rakes in. (Of course, you’re likelier to know that if you’re the type of person who can succeed at a not-for-profit university.)
If I were to name my ideal fix for the for-profit college problem, it would probably involve all of them being stomped on by one of these. But, short of that, everything in Harkin’s report will do. If anything needs a bigger marketing budget, it’s his report, lest anyone fall for the commercials and waste thousands of dollars on empty promises.
Final ad tally: six for Everest College, two for Charter College, one for Le Cordon Bleu – and that seems to be on the low end, as far as this show is concerned. You know, if they’re worried about higher compliance costs and lower profits, they might want to think about if one hour of TV on one local affiliate really requires six of basically the same ad.