September 14, 2010 2:59PM

Oh, to Be Politically Favored!

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education released the latest student‐​loan default data, and along with it offered some good ol’ fashioned profit‐​bashing. Meanwhile, politically favored schools got off with nary a negative word.

The FY 2008 default rates certainly aren’t good. Overall, 7 percent of borrowers whose first payments were due between October 1, 2007, and September 30, 2008, had defaulted by September 30, 2009. And yes, for‐​profit schools had the highest rate out of non‐​profit private, public, and for‐​profit schools, which came in at 4 percent, 6 percent, and 11.6 percent, respectively.

To what did Secretary of Education Arne Duncan attribute these results? The overall default rate, he suggested, was but the sad consequence of “many students…struggling to pay back their student loans during very difficult economic times.” The for‐​profit rate, however, had a very different cause: “[F]or-profit schools have profited and prospered thanks to federal dollars” and many have saddled “students with debt they cannot afford in exchange for degrees and certificates they cannot use.”

Already, you can see that for‐​profits are largely just an easy political target: All defaulting borrowers are portrayed as victims; wasteful, money‐​hoarding, non‐​profit institutions get no mention; and for‐​profits are painted as predators.

Of course, for‐​profits do have higher default rates, so maybe they really are predators. But there’s more from yesterday…

At roughly the same time Duncan was dumping on for‐​profit schools, his boss was feting another subset of higher education: historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Indeed, he was kicking off National HBCU Week, and lauding the schools’ work. But guess what? While the Education Department doesn’t release default rates for HBCUs as a group, quickly pulling those schools’ data together and averaging their default rates indicates a rate even higher than for‐​profit schools: almost 12 percent. Moreover, for four‐​year, private, non‐​profit HBCUs — which like for‐​profit colleges don’t get big state subsidies to help keep tuition artificially low — the default rate is nearly 13 percent.

So why no criticism by Duncan of HBCUs? Heck, why was his boss celebrating them?

Because they are politically favored, that’s why. Of course, this is in part because of their very important historical mission to furnish higher education to long‐​oppressed African Americans. It is also, though, because like all “non‐​profit” colleges and universities, HBCUs act as if their employees have no interest in higher salaries, nicer facilities, easier workloads — all the rewards that the people in not‐​for‐​profit schools give themselves instead of paying profits out to shareholders. But there’s no evidence that people in HBCUs or other non‐​profit schools are any less self‐​interested than people working or investing in for‐​profit institutions. 

Why do I point this out? Not to pick on HBCUs, but to further illustrate the point that the attack on for‐​profit schools isn’t really about saving taxpayer dollars or protecting students, but going after the easiest target to demagogue — people honest about trying to benefit themselves as much as “the students.” It is also to illustrate, once again, that when we let government fund something, it is political calculus — not educational benefits, economic effectiveness, or what’s best for taxpayers — that ultimately drives the policies. Which is why government needs to get out of the higher ed business that it has made both bloated and, ultimately, a net drain on the economy.