Education Opinion

For-Profit College Oversight Is Penny Wise and Pound Foolish

By Walt Gardner — January 24, 2011 1 min read
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With enrollment at for-profit colleges and trade schools now at an all-time high of about 1.8 million - triple the number a decade ago - you’d think that oversight would be indispensable. This is particularly the case since these schools tend to serve poor students whose education is supported by $145 billion in federal aid, nearly 20 percent of the government’s education loans and grants.

You’d also think so because serious charges have been leveled against these proprietary schools for the quality of their courses and the dubious value of the degrees they confer. Campus Progress, for example, posted an article charging that for-profit colleges are guilty of deceptive recruiting, fraudulent reporting, high prices and dismal job placement. Yet despite these accusations, oversight is dismal. In 2009, for example, New York State’s Bureau of Proprietary School Supervision shuttered three trade schools and cited five more for operating without a license. But in 2010, the bureau largely gave up trying to regulate the growing number of such schools (“As complaints mount, anemic state agency overwhelmed by job of policing for-profit schools,” Daily News, Jan. 18).

The best the bureau says it can do is to send a letter advising the school to apply for a license. It explains that the cut in its staff from 40 in the mid-1990s to 20 today makes its job impossible. But even if the bureau were fully staffed, little would change because the law is toothless. As a result, most schools simply ignore any letter and continue operating as usual. This attitude calls into question whether proprietary schools are more interested in making a profit or providing education and training.

I have no problem with non-traditional tertiary education as long as it does not purport to be something it is not. Whether students are better served by enrolling in community colleges or in proprietary colleges is a decision only they can make. But I find it hard to understand why so many students do not invest the necessary time and effort before opting for the latter. Part of any education is supposed to be about learning how to draw sound conclusions. Why not start with their own schooling?

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.