Tag: for-profit colleges

Are ITT Alternatives Much Better?

The outcome was certain the moment federal and state regulators spilled blood in the water and swarmed ITT Technical Institutes, but today it became official: ITT is going out of business. No proven guilt, just accused to death. But we’ve been over all that.

What is worth pointing out now are the alternatives to ITT. I’ve recently seen a couple of stories from Ohio about community colleges offering to take in students stranded by ITT’s demise, and thought it might be worth doing a little comparison between Ohio ITT branches—I mean, former branches—and these would-be rescuers.

Here is some broad info from the federal College Scorecard on Ohio ITT branches, and it is certainly not great: Annual after-aid costs ranging from $21,212 to $24,258, graduation rates from “not available” to 52 percent, and salary after attending of $38,400, which appears to be listed for most ITT campuses nationwide.

How about those community colleges?

I couldn’t find Butler Tech or Great Oaks on the Scorecard, but Cuyahoga Community College has an annual after-aid student cost of $5,832—enabled by upfront taxpayer subsidies—but only a 6 percent graduation rate and an annual salary after attending of $27,600. Cincinnati State Technical and Community College has an annual cost of $7,021, a graduation rate of 22 percent, and a salary of $29,700. The community colleges are cheaper than ITT, but their outcomes appear appreciably worse.

The Scorecard, importantly, is a seriously flawed tool, but it comes from the very federal government that has targeted ITT, and it gives the kind of first-blush data that have readily been employed to attack the for-profit sector. What I looked at is also, of course, anecdotal. But what it suggests is that the alternatives to ITT, at least in Ohio, are probably no better than ITT was, and may well be worse. Which supports what you’ve read here many times, and which broader evidence upholds: For-profit colleges are not distinctly terrible. It is the whole, federally distorted system that is a wreck.

New College Regs: Accusation = Sentence

It’s no secret that war has been declared on for-profit colleges. The question is whether the war is justifiable. I don’t think it is—the evidence strongly suggests that all of higher ed is broken—but I also think it is very hard for the public, in any individual case, to know whether a college accused of wrongdoing is really awful, or the target of politicians trying to make names for themselves. But just accusing a school of predatory behavior hurts it, generating lots of bad press, encouraging more suits and investigations, and usually resulting in schools settling with government accusers without admitting guilt, maybe to stop the PR and financial bleeding, maybe because they think they’re guilty and that’s the best they can get. Regardless, there is clearly an imbalance of power between taxpayer-funded accusers and the accused.

New federal regulations look like they’ll make the problem of accusation-equals-sentence worse. The Wall Street Journal has a lengthy piece looking at the broad potential ramifications of the regs, but one part of the US Department of Education regulation summary caught my eye: Schools would have to automatically “put up funds, in the form of letters of credit (LOCs), that total at least 10 percent of the amount of Title IV funds received by the school over the previous year” if “a state or federal government entity such as an attorney general, the CFPB, or the FTC brings a major suit against the school.” In other words, the moment any government entity, including the unchained Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, accuses a school of wrongdoing, the punishment begins.

This punishment could easily trigger a cascade of trouble, with the need for a letter of credit scaring off investors, bad publicity scaring off students, and a school suffering financially as a result. That school could then be targeted by the Department of Education for being even more of a financial risk, and the death spiral would become inescapable. This is not too far off from what seems to have happened to Corinthian College. Corinthian was, importantly, ultimately found guilty of fraud, but that rare guilty verdict was rendered after Corinthian was no more and had no one to defend it in court.

It is, to be sure, hard to feel too sorry for the for-profit sector. It does have poor outcomes, and is heavily dependent on students paying with government dough. That said, there is also a good bit of evidence that it is no worse, controlling for student challenges, than other higher ed sectors. And it is very easy to imagine politicians—human beings likely as self-interested as the average for-profit school owner or employee—going after for-profit schools because it is politically easy.

These proposed regulations look like they will stack the deck even more against for-profit colleges.

For-Profit Colleges: Terrible or Target?

The Center for American Progress has a new paper out calling for the demise of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), one of the primary accrediting bodies of for-profit colleges. The paper accuses ACICS of being negligent in its accrediting practices, and as a result enabling loads of students and federal aid dollars to flow to bad schools. And ACICS may well be lax, though there is a big debate about exactly what the role of an accreditor is: college watchdog, or friendly advisor? But ACICS itself is not what I mainly want to discuss here. No, it is the evidence that for-profit schools are perhaps being unfairly targeted rather than being particularly bad actors.

The first bit of evidence is something I’ve hinted at before: lots of suits have been brought against for-profit schools, typically by state attorneys general, but few have ended in findings of guilt. As CAP’s paper helpfully itemizes, most accusations, at least for ACICS accredited schools, have been settled with “no finding or admission of fault by the college.” And in the most notable case of a court finding a for-profit guilty—the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges—the judgement was issued without a trial because Corinthian no longer existed and could not defend itself.

Many of the state AGs who have brought suits—including in California, Kentucky, and Massachusetts—have pursued higher political office. California’s Kamala Harris is running for the U.S. Senate. Kentucky’s Jack Conway unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2015. Former Massachusetts AG Martha Coakley ran for governor in 2014.

Were the suits motivated by a desire to raise the AGs’ profiles? No one but the AGs themselves knows their motivations, and they may well have concluded that the schools had intentionally done illegal things. But it is hard not to also see for-profit schools as relatively easy, unsympathetic targets. Moreover, it is possible that many schools settled not because they thought they were guilty, especially of systematic illegality, but because they did not want their names dragged through the mud anymore. In addition, unlike the AGs, they had to use their own money to defend themselves.

The CAP report also largely brushes off a contention that is crucial—but oft neglected—to understanding the seemingly poor outcomes of the proprietary sector: they work with students facing big obstacles in hugely disproportionate amounts. Writes author Ben Miller, “That argument is not necessarily accurate according to detailed reviews of literature around student default, which found that race and ethnicity do matter for default but that degree completion status is typically the strongest predictor of default.”

Of course, the abilities and personal situations of students have a ton to do with degree completion. And this is not primarily about race. Students at for-profit schools are much more likely to be African-American, but also older, low-income, and dealing with children and full-time jobs than students in other sectors, including community colleges. Indeed, a report on accreditors released by the U.S. Department of Education just yesterday reveals that among major accreditors ACICS member institutions have the highest percentage of undergraduates receiving Pell Grants, a rough proxy for income. 74 percent of students at ACICS accredited schools receive Pell, versus, for instance, 38 percent among schools accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, and 32 percent at the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

Now, maybe the schools should choose not to work with a lot of students who face too many obstacles. But it is the federal government that gives the students much of the funding with which they pay for these schools, on the general principle that everyone should have access to college. And the feds do this without trying to meaningfully evaluate if the students are ready. So, essentially, the for-profit schools, but also the community colleges and nonselective public and nonprofit private schools, which are all seeing poor outcomes, are just doing what the feds want them to do.

Again, the evidence—all of it—needs to be considered before singling out for-profit schools for censure. Too often, it doesn’t seem to be.

Score One for For-Profit Colleges This Veterans Day

There is nothing easier or seemingly more popular in higher education than bashing openly for-profit colleges. (I use “openly,” by the way, for a reason.) If you burrow into the demographic and funding weeds, however, you’ll see that proprietary schools are likely no worse, as a whole, than any other sector of uber-subsidized higher ed. And now Gallup has produced a little more good news for these beleaguered schools, to the extent that any news from our bloated Ivory Tower is good: For-profits seem to do a better job of serving veterans – at least from the vets’ perspective – than public colleges and, depending on how you slice the data, nonprofit private colleges as well.

As the table below shows, when veterans rank how well they feel their schools understood their needs, the percentage giving a 4 or 5 – the top scores – to for-profit schools beats any other sector, and at just the 5 level only nonprofit private institutions surpass them. Comparing for-profit and public schools, for-profits get more 4s and 5s by a 15 percentage point margin.

It’s probably not a mystery why this is. For-profits are more nimble than public colleges, and their desire for profits may actually – get ready – make them more responsive to the needs of the students who buy their services. Yes, there are bad for-profit actors – though the extent to which that is the case is unclear – but maybe on the whole they work better for students than lumbering, impersonal public institutions that get big taxpayer subsidies upfront. At the very least, that’s what this evidence suggests. Not that evidence has mattered much in this debate so far.

You’re Destroying the Whole Tower, Stop Blaming It on the Basement

Yesterday Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, released his magnum opus on for-profit colleges, the culmination of two years of excoriating, browbeating, shaming, and generally demagoguing that fast-growing but relatively small sector of American higher education. His report is everything you’d expect from a crusade characterized by an almost complete unwillingness to address the central role of the federal government in creating pervasive rot not just in for-profit higher education, but the entire Ivory Tower.

The for-profit college sector is certainly raking in lots of cash and producing very little for it, with big revenues but very low completion rates. It’s probably not as bad as Harkin would have us believe—I’ve chronicled much of the exaggeration and misrepresentation that has punctuated his attack—but there’s little question that lots of students drag heaps of taxpayer dough into for-profit schools and get little of value for it.

The thing is, that happens across higher education, including the profit-taking.

As I’ve cited ad nauseum, completion rates throughout higher education are abominable. Looking at first-time, full-time students—an imperfect sample, yes, but the best we’ve got—the top completion rate is for bachelor’s students at private not-for-profit schools. But that’s only 65.4 percent completing within six years. The worst is at public two-year institutions—community colleges—which see only 20.4 percent finish their programs within 150 percent of normal time. That’s just one-in-five!

Surprisingly, Harkin’s report mentions the atrocious completion rates at community colleges. But only very briefly, and mainly to assert that “the cost of for-profit programs makes those programs more risky for students and Federal taxpayers.” That proviso is technically correct, but as misleading as much of the behavior for which Harkin condemns for-profit schools. Community colleges are cheaper to students in large part because they get direct taxpayer subsidies, and while those don’t come mainly from Washington they do come from taxpayers, just at the state and local level. In the 2009-10 school year, state and local appropriations to community colleges totaled $5,412 per pupil. Meanwhile, public four-year schools—with six-year graduation rates of just 56 percent—received almost $8,000 per student in federal, state, and local appropriations. And, of course, all “not-for-profit” schools get favored tax status, paying no taxes on most of their revenue and benefiting from tax deductible largess of donors.

But don’t think those schools aren’t profiting. Harkin’s report blows off the possibility that putatively not-for-profit schools make profits simply by stating that “by definition” such schools “do not retain any revenue as profit.” But as Vance Fried illustrated in his 2011 policy analysis, most public and not-for-profit private colleges make thousands of dollars per-undergraduate beyond the cost of educating them. They just use the money to reward the people in the school, or to pay for things that often make the school more bloated, instead of distributing the profits to investors.

Putting the for-profit sector in the context of all of higher education, it’s clear the witch hunt has been on. But there’s also been major scapegoating: by enabling students to pay for school with other people’s money, and with almost no regard for their ability to do college work, it is federal student aid that largely causes the rot in higher ed, quashing both school and student incentives to economize, and student incentives to think critically about consuming higher ed. By demonizing institutions that dare admittedly make profits, politicians like Sen. Harkin shift the blame from where it belongs—themselves—to those who do what the politicians want: ”educate” people regardless of their ability. It’s exactly like housing: the politicians demand that everyone be able to buy a home, condemn anyone who might fail to furnish the uncreditworthy with mortgages, then blame the lenders when things go horribly wrong. They seem to want the votes—their profits—but no blame when things go south.

Sen. Harkin, the fault for what ails not just for-profit higher education, but the entire Ivory Tower, sits largely with you and your colleagues. Please quit shifting blame and do what must be done: phase out student aid and make all schools earn their money.

A Quick College Policy Primer

As the story of Julia—America’s favorite two-dimensional, life-long ward of the state—makes clear, higher education is likely to figure prominently in the upcoming presidential campaign. In addition, as the student loan interest uproar has progressed, I’ve realized that a lot of well-meaning people have little or no clue about higher ed reality. As a result, I’ve put together a few links to some foundational information for reporters, policymakers, and the public to get some much-needed perspective on higher ed. The list isn’t exhaustive, but it gets at the really big issues:

Let Taxpayers Eat Ramen: We hear a lot about supposedly starving students, but almost nothing about the living, breathing people who are supplying all the public funds for higher ed. The Cato report How Much Ivory Does This Tower Need? What We Spend on, and Get from, Higher Education calculates the total burden for those forgotten folks, and how it has changed over the past few decades. And the result is, well, ”Let the taxpayers eat Ramen!”

For-Profit Colleges Are Bad, All Others Are Saints:  If politicos ever decide to go after colleges and universities, it’s usually only those that are openly and officially for-profit. You know, because seeking profit is inherently evil and exploitative. But here’s the thing: As revealed in Federal Higher Education Policy and the Profitable Nonprofits, most of the ivy-clad institutions that wouldn’t stoop to something as squalid as profit-making are actually making big bucks off of undergrads. They just use the booty to reward the people already in the schools rather than investors. Turns out you don’t trade in your self-interest when you take on a career of the mind.

Heartless State Legislatures Are the Problem: Maybe taxpayers are providing more student aid, but they wouldn’t have to if state legislators would stop cutting subsidies to public postsecondary institutions. Or maybe not:  As itemized in my two posts here—one of which includes some back-of-the-online-spreadsheet estimates for every state—it’s not true that state and local governments have been slashing overall aid to public colleges. It’s a teensy bit closer to true on a per-pupil basis, but public institutions have generally raised tuition revenue well in excess of subsidy losses.

Student Aid: The Reverse Chinese Finger Trap: With a Chinese finger trap, the harder you pull, the tougher it is to escape. For college affordability, the harder we pump in student aid, the tougher it is to escape ridiculous college prices. Basically—though many in higher ed will swear it doesn’t happen—colleges raise their prices to capture aid, rendering the aid largely self-defeating. The “how” and “why” of this is explained in the Cato analysis Making College More Expensive: The Unintended Consequences of Federal Tuition Aid, and I pinpoint some of the empirical research—as well as furnish a brief explanation of the limits of such research—here.

Hopefully, these links will be of value as some try to establish Eden for Julia. Because, for the rest of us, doing so will likely require a move decidedly to the east.

Debate: Colleges Getting Rich Off Students and Taxpayers?

On Tuesday, Cato held a forum on the big profits made by putatively “nonprofit” colleges, the subject of a new Cato Policy Analysis. Not surprisingly, Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, objected to the use of the term “profits” to categorize the excess money colleges take in through undergraduate students, but all the panelists seemed to agree that there is both significant waste in higher ed, and that the Capitol Hill obsession with unabashedly for-profit institutions misses big cracks all over the Ivory Tower.

Unfortunately, of course, many of you couldn’t join us on Tuesday. Thankfully, you can now take in the entire bit of illuminating infotainment right here:

On a related note, give George Leef’s latest commentary a read. He does a nice job of pointing out all the major flaws in perhaps the most politically powerful argument for ever-greater government spending on higher education: because degree-holders tend to earn more, we need oodles more people with degrees. I’ve taken a whack at that dubious argument recently, but George gives it a far more comprehensive treatment.