Sunday, April 7, 2013

Fixing the lie of "for profit" schools (revised and angrier!)

After my last article about the lie of for profit schools a friend of mine wrote to me saying that while he agreed with most of my take on the Devry's of the world he couldn't completely agree with it. 

Of course this sparked a larger discussion when I saw him a few days later.  Briefly, his position was that while for profit schools may be more apt to focus on their bank account than the curriculum it didn't necessarily elevate public universities to Mother Theresa status.

He related a few key points in his argument. 

  •      Nobody's forced to attend a post-secondary school.
  •      Non-profit doesn't necessarily mean eligible for sainthood.
  •   Schools aren't completely responsible for the success or failure of a student. 

Let's take a look at these...

Yes, education after high school is completely voluntary  but I'd argue completely necessary.  That is unless you think cashiering at your local fast food joint is a career path.  Considering I could barely count change when I graduated from high school, a little extra classroom time was beneficial.

When we're talking about non-profits it's a given that anything touched by humanity is by default corrupted by its ambitions.  Even the Bible couldn't escape that truth and neither does a non-profit school.

He pointed to how non-profits may not offer stocks traded on the NYSE but it never stopped them from wasting millions on something other than their stated reason for being. Admittedly, it's hard to frame the building of a new football stadium at "(Insert State here) University" as a catalyst for advancing education.
Still, at least the money went back into advancing something other than a quarterly dividend to some shareholder.  I'd also remind you that there are plenty of non-profits that don't have their own football stadium. 

His last point goes without saying, we are to at least some degree in control of our own destiny.  If in the pursuit of it we're mislead into making a poor decision, however, somebody needs to be held accountable.  It's the reason we have the Federal Trade Commission.  If you mislead the public about your product expect to pay the consequences.  That's the set of rules you have to accept if you're in the "business" of selling education like Oscar Mayer sells hot dogs. 

Yes, public universities also suffer the sin of selling unnecessary classes too but they're a damned sight cheaper and at least the credits transfer.  Oh yeah, and they're not setting up the curriculum based on a revenue projection.

That's really the crux of the argument.  As I said in the last article, if you're going to just sell education as a product then your focus isn't on advancing knowledge.  Rather it's advancing your bottom line.
So here's the part where my friend agreed with me.

I hold the belief that any educational institution that operates as a profit entity shouldn't have access to public funds.  Yes, I'm suggesting that taxpayer backed student loans and grants shouldn't be given to institutions whose reason for being is the make money. 

I see no reason to provide public funding to someone's private venture with virtually no oversight and dubious value to society.  It's not unlike the uproar over the AIG bailout or the furor over saving domestic automakers.  The difference here is that there's even less oversight of public monies in for-profit schools than there was for the billions we gave to banks and insurance companies. 

If your school is in it for the money then put it where your mouth is.  The Devry's and ITT's of the world  shouldn't be getting the bulk of their revenues from government backed student loans and grants.  If they want to offer financing they should be providing it themselves and not passing it on to taxpayers.

That means your education may still cost $50k for a Bachelor's degree but if it doesn't live up to the hype and you go broke because of it at least there's always bankruptcy. 

It's not that I'm against private schools or even alternative education, on the contrary.  I myself was attracted to ITT Tech and then the University of Phoenix exactly because I didn't want to waste time on classes that had nothing to do with my chosen course of study. 

That's been a failing of public universities in the past and it caused a drop in enrollment which ultimately benefitted alternatives like the for-profit schools.  A problem, by the way,  that's only recently been addressed by many universities adopting a similar program structure to the for-profit schools.

So if the Not for profit schools have been able to adjust their programs to match the profit schools and still be 2 to 4 times cheaper for the same degree then where's the justification for the extra cost? 

As much as I may have enjoyed my time at ITT Tech nobody holds that degree in the same regard as say a year of study at M.I.T.  So how can you justify charging almost the same money for a year of education at an IVY league school ?

The simple answer goes back to that old marketing adage, Sell benefits not features.  Advertising a benefit is essentially selling an intangible product that's almost impossible to challenge.  Where features like power windows, cruise control or Air conditioning are tangible.  Looking Cool, being admired and improving your station in life are not. 

They're the warm fuzzies that you can't quite put your finger on and if you can't define what it is that's motivating you then you can't challenge their value either.   Convincing me that I'm going to be just as valuable to the world as an M.I.T. graduate based on a bare bones"heat and serve" boilerplate curriculum is just a lie.

That, my friends, is exactly what for-profit schools are selling.  Not the quality of their programs but the promise of improving your condition for a premium price.  Whether or not it's justified is entirely subjective but I'd rather not be putting taxpayers on the line for it. 

If you're a for-profit school and your programs fail to deliver you still have the taxpayer's money no matter how successful the students are.  You've effectively conned the government into supporting your corporate bottom line. 

Perhaps it's the biggest con game of all when you can get public money to support private enterprise that by its very nature is set up to only enrich itself.  

I mean at least Boeing has to deliver helicopters that don't crash in the desert for the billions they get from the Department of Defense.  Where's the accountability for the University of Phoenix and Devry's of the world who take billions in public education money? 

Does it make any sense that government financing has turned these schools into multibillion dollar corporations whose only reason for existence is to keep the public money pump primed and flowing?  They can't deny it, their "business" model is set up to support a revenue stream no matter how much it degrades the product.  It really is that simple.  If you're a corporation, you're in it for the money anything else is just marketing.

This actually speaks to the flawed logic of people who believe that government should be run like a business.  It just doesn't work simply because where business exists for the enrichment of itself, government exists for the public good (or at least it used to).

Government that exists for the betterment of itself usually has a dictator at the helm and that's not good for anybody. 

The logic fits for education as well.  Hopefully my point is a bit clearer now.

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