For-Profit Journalism Whiffs the For-Profit Education Story

Chris LehmannAugust 16, 2013

The online keepers of Slate are tireless packagers of phony contrarianism–the painfully baroque and self-involved currency that smarty-pants Washington scribes use to advertise their capacity to see beyond the played-out terms of conventional political and cultural debate. So it barely registered as one more tick of the metronome for the site’s reliably awful “Moneybox” franchise–which has famously launched puckish defenses of deadly regimes of factory inspection in the developing world and lobbying-crafted legislation for our own moribund democracy–decided that, hey, for-profit education has been getting a bad rap. Unlike those specimens, the piece in question, by education blogger Tressie McMillan Cottom, actually doesn’t advance an objectively heinous argument; rather, in the style of many formalist ventures in faux-contrarianism, it zeroes fastidiously in on a non-problem, nicely captured in the post’s title: “Let’s Stop Condescending to For-Profit College Students.”

Fair enough. But the thing is, critics of for-profit universities don’t typically deride the students enrolled at high-margin, low-content schools like University of Phoenix and Devry University. The problem with such schools isn’t the student body which, as Cottom notes, comes heavily from working-class and mid-career demographics–people who are looking to land a credential to help advance their careers. They may find, as one of the informants in her research on for-profit education writes, that similar forays at, say, community colleges, left him “not being treated like an adult,” whereas the profession-minded instruction at for-profit schools gave him “an education that made my time worth it.”

All this may be true, but it’s irrelevant to the business model of for-profit colleges, which are basically pump-and-dump enterprises that seek to enroll as many federal student loan recipients as possible, regardless of their academic skills or likelihood of full matriculation–and then saddling the students who didn’t make the grade with a lifetime’s worth of debt obligations. Senate investigators found in 2012 that a whopping 96 percent of the 2.4 million students enrolled at for-profit schools took out student loans to fund their education. (The comparable rates of loan indebtedness at public colleges and community colleges are 48 percent and 13 percent, respectively; student loan default rates are, not surprisingly, also far higher among students at for-profit universities.) And school recruiters are openly encouraged to plump the enrollment numbers for cash ; in 2009, the Apollo Group, which oversees the University of Phoenix, settled a $78 million whistleblower lawsuit asserting that the school tied recruiters’ pay directly to the spiking of enrollment figures. Practices of fraud in loan applications and deceptive marketing are also distressingly widespread at for-profit schools, according to a 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office.

It’s not by any stretch of the imagination “condescending” to point out to an economically vulnerable student population that they are being played, and made the subject of a vast credential-peddling scam. It is, on the contrary, the essence of “being treated like an adult.”

What’s really curious here, though, is just who the implicit subject of the “Let’s” is supposed to be in Cottom’s hortatory headline–the “we” here seems to stand in for the grabby proprietors of for-profit colleges themselves. There’s a small lesson to heed here, regardless what kind of seminar room a student may find herself in. You see, much of the data cited above on the for-profit education racket comes, you see, from the hardy investigators at Pro Publica–a proudly non-profit enterprise dedicated to the endangered craft of journalism in the public interest. (Has Moneybox mounted a faux-contrarian, insipid argument against non-profit journalism, you ask? Why, yes it has!) Slate, meanwhile, continues to be a property of the Washington Post group, which after unloading its flagship newspaper property to an online retail titan now relies more than ever on the fortunes of its huge for-profit education subsidiary, the Kaplan Group, to shore up the company’s bottom line. Funnily enough, that blinding conflict of interest is never mentioned in Cottom’s plea to treat for-proft students more civilly. You’d think that such a blatant exercise in corporate backsheesh masquerading as journalism would rate more comment in today’s Washington. But I guess the subject just isn’t contrarian enough.

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.