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This week, the board of directors of the Coalition for Educational Success, a lobbying group that represents various for-profit colleges and the companies that own them, released a list of optional “Standards of Responsible Conduct and Transparency” (.pdf) for their member colleges. These standards include providing students with “clear and accurate information” about costs, transferability of credits, completion rates, and potential for post-graduation gainful employment. They also prohibit the colleges from providing “bonuses or other incentive compensation… to any admissions or financial aid professional…based on enrollments or starts”. The Coalition claims that the colleges who agree to abide by these standards will be subject to “a rigorous third-party enforcement mechanism” by an “independent audit firm”, but don’t provide any specific information regarding oversight.
The problems here are obvious: 1) self-regulation isn’t sufficient, 2) most of these standards are already required by law, which renders the standards pointless, and 3) they are voluntary.
These problematic standards can be seen as a microcosm of the for-profit educational industry as a whole. The inescapable fact is that these colleges are businesses. Their primary concern is profit, not quality education, accountability, or the success and well-being of students. As in all businesses, profit trumps everything else. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that in general. When education is privatized, though, the focus on profit devalues all that is important and valuable about education. When profit comes first, students lose. It’s as simple as that.
At least the Coalition is making some sort of effort to address their problems. But their standards are meaningless and impotent without proper oversight and universal enforcement. And let’s be honest: such oversight and accountability will never be implemented in a privatized educational system. This is why I hope that for-profit colleges really are in an irreversible decline fueled by declining enrollment and significant financial losses. I think it’s fair to say that their demise would be an unambiguously good thing for both American college students and higher education in general.