College & Workforce Readiness

Documentary Investigates Booming For-Profit College Sector

By Caralee J. Adams — July 19, 2010 2 min read
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College, Inc., a new FRONTLINE documentary being released on Tuesday, takes a fascinating look at the exploding for-profit college sector and its business approach to higher education—with sparkling new facilities, slick marketing, and rooms often full, not with students, but with computer servers delivering classes online.

How is it working for students? Non-traditional students say they like being treated like customers in an environment where classes are convenient, year-round, and flexible. But the documentary reveals many stories of students who felt they were pressured to enroll, misled about the quality of programs, and are now are unable to find work. Many say they were left saddled with enormous debt.

And for investors? For-profit companies are raking in about $400 billion a year, much of it thanks to revenues from taxpayers in the form of federal student loans.

What does the higher ed. community have to say? Without standard measures, many experts in higher education are skeptical of the quality of the training at for-profit universities. Critics in the documentary claim the business approach is detrimental to students and represents a “fast-foodification of higher education.” It’s troubling, many say, when for-profit colleges hire teachers on contract and spend more on marketing than on faculty salaries.

What does it mean for access? For-profits maintain they are filling a void by providing education to underserved populations, especially with community colleges and traditional universities struggling to keep up with demand.

But at what cost? The cost of attending for-profits can be five to six times as much as a community college and twice as much as a four-year university, the documentary explains. Default rates on college loans are close to 11.9 percent for students who attended for-profit schools, compared to 6.2 percent for other students. While for-profit students represent 10 percent of college enrollment, they account for 25 percent of federal financial aid, according to College, Inc.

College, Inc. features several disgruntled students who felt scammed. Either their training was inadequate or lacked accreditation, making their job prospects dim, they said. Many were bitter and overwhelmed with huge student loan bills.

The documentary is a good primer on the inner workings of for-profits and the transformation taking place in higher ed. With more congressional hearings expected to consider greater oversight of the for-profit sector, it’s worth an hour to tune in to better understand this booming sector.

A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.