Friday, August 27

FRONTINE: College Inc

FRONTLINE: College Inc.FRONTLINE: College Inc. is a fascinating documentary about the world of for-profit universities. These schools are the ones you see advertised everywhere like the University of Phoenix and DeVry. According to Frontline, community colleges and public universities are overwhelmed with demand and cannot adequately handle the public's demand for education. The documentary questions if for-profit schools the answer to this problem.

The documentary begins by following an educational investor. He brings in investors to help turn around troubled universities. His job is it to turn each school into a profitable business. The movie also discusses the success of the University of Phoenix, whose parent company, the Apollo Group, is publicly traded. The first quarter of the documentary puts a positive focus on the schools. They are, after all, providing a positive service, and have the potential to play a positive role in American society.

Digging a bit deeper, however, reveals some major problems with the for-profit model from beginning to end.

Promotion - In 2008,  the University of Phoenix spent $130 million on ads. The school spends more on marketing and advertising than it does on the product itself. For-profit schools have been accused of requiring recruiters to fill quotas, leading to the recruitment of students who are not financially or intellectually ready to begin school. One former recruiter interviewed by Frontline said she was told to convince potential students that a college degree will solve all of their problems.

Funding - What terrifies me is the debt many students take on to attend a for-profit university. These students make up 10% of students, but 25% of financial aid (grants and loans) recipients, and, by some estimates, almost 50% of defaults. Median student debt for students attending a 4 year public university is $7,960, for a private non-profit median debt $17,040, and for a private for-profit university median debt is $31,190. These loans are backed by the federal government and is what makes a for-profit university possible.

It's interesting to watch the host, Martin Smith, interview an investor. Instead of referring to the enrollment process as signing up kids for classes, Smith refers to qualifying them for loans, and the investor doesn't seem to have a problem with this. The founder of the University of Phoenix is a billionaire thanks to the federal student loan system. The financial troubles of his students don't matter to him. All that matters is that men like Jack Walsh, a private equity trader, can count for-profit universities amongst their investments. This, needless to say, was highly disturbing.

Perhaps it is beyond the scope of the documentary, but Frontline did not show how deep of a problem this is. The issue is not confined to for-profit schools, they are simply the easiest to attack. Funding education is a moral dilemma facing the country. Society values an education and believes that anyone willing and able to go to school should be able to. Because of this, student loans are fairly easy to obtain. Because they are so easy to obtain, universities can charge more and more

Outcomes - This to me is the saddest part of the story. Many who go through the program find themselves to be unqualified for jobs when they graduate. The documentary talks to three women graduated from a nursing program without ever getting any experience in a hospital. The lack of practical experience disqualified them from most jobs, leaving them $30,000 in debt and unemployed.

I really recommend watching this movie. It's a real eye-opener.

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