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.