Dear Commons Community,
Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee yesterday released a report based on a comprehensive investigation of 30 of the biggest for-profit college companies. It’s full of stark revelations about this controversial, troubled industry. (An excerpt from the Executive Summary highlighting key findings follows the main text of this posting).
“In this report, you will find overwhelming documentation of exorbitant tuition, aggressive recruiting practices, abysmal student outcomes, taxpayer dollars spent on marketing and pocketed as profit, and regulatory evasion and manipulation,” Mr. Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in a statement on Sunday. “These practices are not the exception — they are the norm. They are systemic throughout the industry, with very few individual exceptions.”
A New York Times article comments:
“Over the last 15 years, enrollment and profits have skyrocketed in the industry. Until the 1990s, the sector was made up of small independent schools offering training in fields like air-conditioning repair and cosmetology. But from 1998 to 2008, enrollment more than tripled, to about 2.4 million students. Three-quarters are at colleges owned by huge publicly traded companies — and, more recently, private equity firms — offering a wide variety of programs.
Enrolling students, and getting their federal financial aid, is the heart of the business, and in 2010, the report found, the colleges studied had a total of 32,496 recruiters, compared with 3,512 career-services staff members.
Among the 30 companies, an average of 22.4 percent of revenue went to marketing and recruiting, 19.4 percent to profits and 17.7 percent to instruction.
Their chief executive officers were paid an average of $7.3 million, although Robert S. Silberman, the chief executive of Strayer Education, made $41 million in 2009, including stock options.”
Presently, there is stalemate in Washington on holding this industry accountable, because the big money that it spends on lobbying, lawyering, and campaign contributions has bought the allegiance of many congressional Republicans and Democrats and has thwarted federal regulations. Thus determined reform efforts by the Obama Administration, and principled leaders like Senators Harkin, Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Kay Hagan (D-NC), and Representatives Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Maxine Waters (D-CA), and Keith Ellison (D-MN), have largely been blocked.
Senator Harkin and his Committee should be commended for taking on the for-profit college industry and its deep-pocket investors.
A 2-year investigation by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions demonstrated that Federal taxpayers are investing billions of dollars a year, $32 billion in the most recent year, in companies that operate for-profit colleges. Yet, more than half of the students who enrolled in in those colleges in 2008-9 left without a degree or diploma within a median of 4 months.
.For-profit colleges are owned and operated by businesses. Like any business, they are ultimately accountable by law for the returns they produce for shareholders. While small independent for-profit colleges have a long history, by 2009, at least 76 percent of students attending for-profit colleges were enrolled in a college owned by either a company traded on a major stock exchange or a college owned by a private equity firm. The financial performance of these companies is closely tracked by analysts and by investors.
.Congress has failed to counterbalance investor demands for increased financial returns with requirements that hold companies accountable to taxpayers for providing quality education, support, and outcomes. Federal law and regulations currently do not align the incentives of for-profit colleges so that the colleges succeed financially when students succeed.
.For-profit colleges have an important role to play in higher education. The existing capacity of non-profit and public higher education is insufficient to satisfy the growing demand for higher education, particularly in an era of drastic cutbacks in State funding for higher education. Meanwhile, there has been an enormous growth in non-traditional students—those who either delayed college, attend part-time or work full-time while enrolled, are independent of their parents, or have dependents other than a spouse. This trend has created a “new American majority” of non-traditional students.
.In theory, for-profit colleges should be well-equipped to meet the needs of non-traditional students. They offer the convenience of nearby campus and online locations, a structured approach to coursework and the flexibility to stop and start classes quickly and easily. These innovations have made attending college a viable option for many working adults, and have proven successful for hundreds of thousands of people who might not otherwise have obtained degrees.
.But for-profit colleges also ask students with modest financial resources to take a big risk by enrolling in high-tuition schools. As a result of high tuition, students must take on significant student loan debt to attend school. When students withdraw, as hundreds of thousands do each year, they are left with high monthly payments but without a commensurate increase in earning power from new training and skills.
.Many for-profit colleges fail to make the necessary investments in student support services that have been shown to help students succeed in school and afterwards, a deficiency that undoubtedly contributes to high withdrawal rates. In 2010, the for-profit colleges examined employed 35,202 recruiters compared with 3,512 career services staff and 12,452 support services staff, more than two and a half recruiters for each support services employee.
.This may help to explain why more than half a million students who enrolled in 2008-9 left without a degree or Certificate by mid-2010. Among 2-year Associate degree-seekers, 63 percent of students departed without a degree.
.The vast majority of the students left with student loan debt that may follow them throughout their lives, and can create a financial burden that is extremely difficult, and sometimes impossible, to escape.