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Around and Around Again

It’s not hard to find politicians railing against for-profit colleges. Here’s one from the other day:

Such colleges are training students “for occupations for which they are not suited or for occupations in which they will be unable to find jobs.”

By the other day, I mean 71 years ago. That was President Harry Truman. Here’s a more recent one:

“My concern is with these institutions — the schools which have violated the most minimal standards of decency and professional ethics — schools that have lured unsuspecting persons into training courses of dubious value through misleading claims and high-pressure sales tactics. These schools sign up students when there is virtually no possibility they will ever realize the glamorous career objective so eloquently and deceptively sold to them.”

Well, it’s a little more recent. That’s California Congressman Alphonzo E. Bell, Jr., a Republican, at a hearing in 1974. Some have been even more blunt:

“The kids are left without an education and with no job, and the taxpayer ends up holding the bag for the kid who gets cheated.”

That’s another Republican — William Bennett, then Reagan’s education secretary, in 1988.

So the more recent battles over gainful employment with the Obama administration? Or the cozy relationship the Trump administration had with the sector? We’ve seen it all before. This is the history that David Whitman mines for his new book, The Profits of Failure: For-Profit Colleges and the Closing of the Conservative Mind.

Whitman, who worked as a speechwriter for Education Secretary Arne Duncan during the Obama administration, spoke at a webinar this week with New America and The Century Foundation, describing a cycle of for-profit scandal and regulation that has happened time and again. It goes like this:

  • Exposure. New federal revenues propel rapid growth, scandals, and exposés.
  • Outrage. Congress investigates abuses.
  • Action. Federal government undertakes new laws and regulation; one or more big chains go bankrupt.
  • Denial. For-profit colleges launch a counterattack, claiming they’re being targeted for abuses of a few bad apples.
  • Acceptance. New legislation shrinks the sector. Industry leaders pledge bad days won’t return. Government loosens the purse strings.

Where are we now? Whitman told me he sees us at that Acceptance stage “but heading surprisingly quickly back into the first stage of that cycle, Exposure, which looms on the near-horizon.”

As Whitman noted, the for-profit sector had perhaps its friendliest ever president for the past four years. The Biden administration, in contrast, is likely to push for tighter rules. Whitman’s recommendations:

  • Restore the gainful employment rule, which tried to eliminate programs that left graduates with unaffordable debt.
  • Create a fairer borrower defense rule for students who were defrauded by their colleges.
  • Establish new minimum standards for loan repayment for every type of college program.

Given Whitman’s history lesson, I’ll leave you with a link to a 1948 article in Collier’s magazine. It drips with venom for taxpayer-funded courses in bartending, ballroom dancing, and — most of all — chicken sexing.

The next week, in 1948, long before any debates about stackable credentials or free community college, an Ohio Congressman — Homer A. Ramey — wrote to Collier’s with the exact words one could use today to call for Biden to reinstate the gainful employment rule:

“In their haste to lay hands upon every available federal dollar some operators have not bothered to consider whether their graduates have any chance of putting their new learning to good use.”

The more things change …

— Scott Smallwood

+ A refreshing postscript. In our DC policy debates, I sometimes get the feeling that everyone in the room went to an ultra-selective college (us journalists included) and is now batting around ideas about what other people’s children should do regarding things like for-profit colleges. Yes, Whitman went to Amherst. But, in mid-career he also got a certificate from a for-profit college in massage therapy — a good experience, he said at the webinar. “As far I as I knew I was the only relatively senior political appointee in the education department who had ever earned a certificate at a for-profit school.”

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Elsewhere on Open Campus

Molly Minta talked with five advocates for trans rights in Mississippi about what daily life is like in the state, which recently passed a law banning transgender women at public colleges and schools from playing on sports teams that align with their gender identity.

In Cleveland, Amy Morona explored the many ways — raffles, tuition relief, new aid for transfer students, laptops for applicants — that Ohio colleges are trying to lure students and avoid another year of enrollment declines.

First Gen is back! Zipporah Osei is returning with a monthly newsletter about the highs and lows of the first-generation college student experience. This week she writes about post-college depression.

“As a culture, we put a lot of stock into graduations as signifiers of success,” Zipporah says. “If what follows are feelings of anything but joy, it becomes all too easy for the feeling of loss to become guilt.”

Paul Fain writes about the concept of a competency marketplace in The Job this week. The idea — a digital hub that brings together job seekers, employers, and postsecondary providers — may be getting closer to reality, Paul says.

In latitude(s) this week, Karin Fischer writes about anti-Asian discrimination that international students face. That racism is always there, a scholar told Karin. The recent shootings near Atlanta just made it more visible.

“The truth about change is we tend to overestimate its speed while underestimating its reach,” Jeff Selingo writes in Next this week. There’s no doubt the pandemic is a watershed moment in the history of higher ed, Jeff says, but it may be some time before we understand its full impact.

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Welcome to Nico!

Nico Portuondo, a graduate student in journalism at Northwestern University, joined us this week as a spring intern. He graduated from Duke University, where he wrote for the Duke Chronicle.

“I started working at my campus newspaper late in my college career when I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and was immediately hooked on journalism,” Nico says. “No matter how tight the deadline, crafting stories never felt like a job.”

At Duke, Nico majored in environmental science and policy. He’s particularly drawn to covering climate issues, he says, “because of the precarious future of my hometown of Miami.”

He’s looking forward to diving into the realm of higher ed, including reporting about how persistent inequities are being addressed and how the pandemic is transforming colleges. Reach out to Nico with story ideas.


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