College, Inc., a recent DVD release from PBS, is a Frontline co-production with Rain Media, Inc. It explores the big business takeover of post-secondary educational institutions, profiling people who invest in, buy, or establish colleges and take them public at a great profit. This is a McDonald’s approach to education—chain colleges with multiple locations throughout the country.
Call the economy whatever you like, but due to its current condition, more people are trying to get better educations, whether they are recent high school graduates or displaced workers and older adults who need an edge in the job market. Community colleges, long the hope of students for whom traditional colleges and universities are not viable, cannot accommodate the number of potential students seeking an education.
Enter for-profit colleges and universities. In 1976, John Sperling founded the University of Phoenix which offers mass-produced education and is run like a corporation. Currently there are five hundred thousand students enrolled at the various University of Phoenix locations. For-profit schools are a big hit on Wall Street because the profits are tremendous—they have turned education into an “industry.”
College, Inc. exposes the darker side of this industry. While students who may be ignored by traditional schools are able to get degrees, the value of those degrees is questionable. Students who were recruited with guarantees of job placement are suing schools that enticed them with those and other false promises. High pressure sales techniques that exploit potential students’ needs and fears are exposed.
Statistics offered include the shocking cost of for-profit schools, which is up to six times as much as community colleges, twice as much as state universities. Ten percent of college students are currently enrolled in for-profit schools, but 44% of student loan defaults are attributable to for-profit enrollees.
Grand Canyon University, with 40,000 students, is one of the profiled institutions. It has new buildings, state of the art facilities, and competitive sports. It experienced a 400% increase in enrollment after being taken from a struggling, distressed program to a for-profit corporation. Tuition is an incredible $400-$550 per credit hour and 90% of the students are on-line learners. It seems these students would better benefit more from on-line programs offered by state colleges and universities.
College, Inc. reveals that students of for-profit schools carry a debt load that is double that of those attending traditional schools, and the bulk of tuitions are paid by taxes. In the United States, student debt is equal to national credit card debt.
An industry insider reveals that 25% of for-profit schools budgets goes to marketing (up to twice as much as spent on staff salaries). Another explains that distressed schools are turned around using the “3 M’s”: money, management, and marketing.
Among those interviewed for College, Inc. are the U.S. Secretary of Education, students, for-profit school executives and founders, lobbyists, former recruiters, representatives of the U.S. Department of Education, and education writers. The executives, founders, and lobbyists all have wonderful things to say about what these schools offer. The others…well, not so much.
Institutions like DeVry Institute and University of Phoenix have long been suspect in the minds of many. College, Inc. confirms much of their suspicions. Naturally, many of the schools that were contacted for College, Inc. deny that there is any hard sell, misrepresentation, or substandard education. Their denials are not offered in interviews, but by letter.
The Frontline approach to industrialized education is far from balanced; one might call it “adversarial.” While those involved in the industry get to make their pitches, the statistics and opinions solicited from experts in the field convincingly refute the value of these institutions. As always, it’s up to the viewer to decide, hopefully with further research, the value—if any—these schools offer.
See College, Inc. at PBS.com.