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We Don't Need No (For-Profit) Education

With summer nearly over, the nation’s college campuses are bustling once again. For many students however, the rites of passage associated with higher education won’t be rushing a sorority, winning the big game or planning a spring break trip to Florida. No, looking back, a growing number of students will regale their children with horror stories about being ripped off by a for-profit college. Of late, the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee has been investigating the booming multi-billion dollar for-profit college industry -- think Kaplan University or DeVry for example. What it has found thus far is not pretty. According to a report released by the committee earlier this summer, some major players in the field are spending about as much on marketing and recruitment as they are on educating students. Those numbers are worse at exclusively online for-profit institutions. So, just what type of marketing and recruitment is all of that money buying? An undercover investigation by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) this summer found that of fifteen for-profit colleges tested, four encouraged undercover applicants to “falsify their financial aid forms to qualify for federal aid” while all fifteen “made deceptive or otherwise questionable statements.” “Fictitious prospective” applicants that filled out online forms indicating their interest were met with a barrage of aggressive phone calls at all hours of the day and night with one GAO applicant receiving “more than 180 phone calls in a month.” One GAO investigator was actually offered a $14,000 massage therapy certificate and told it was “a good value” despite the fact that the same certificate cost only $520 at a local community college. These hardball recruitment tactics work out quite nicely for the bottom lines of these big corporations but students end up paying a hefty price far more life-changing than the degrees or certificates they may end up receiving. Take for example, the recently reported case of Michelle Zuver. After finishing a for-profit college program she was left $86,000 in debt, all for a degree in criminal justice that is not even recognized by many police agencies. Sadly, Zuver is not the only student left buried in debt and unable to pursue the career promised by her for-profit education. Many more share her story. These marketing and recruitment activities along with the troubling lack of quality are funded in large part by taxpayers. Up to 90 percent of the money for-profit colleges bring in each year is in the form of federal student aid dollars. In fact, University of Phoenix -- the Wall-Mart of for-profit colleges -- saw at least 86 percent of its $3.77 billion in revenue last year paid by taxpayers. These shocking percentages are likely even larger because the figures do not include federal funds from other programs like the G.I. Bill. Numbers like these should make conservatives lose their tea in anger but it is Republicans who have shown little interest in solving this problem. During Senate hearings on the matter, GOP members of the upper chamber demonstrated an interest only in providing political cover for the for-profit industry and some softball questions for its mouthpieces. And why would they care? After all, it was the Bush administration that created the regulatory environment that encouraged these for-profit institutions to go for broke pillaging the system in the first place. When the for-profit college industry is offering prospective students certificates and degrees that are too-often useless after badgering them into signing up for federal student loans that they may never be able to repay, the broken system cries out for fixing. This is about real people trying to better their lives with an education and the for-profit college industry is taking many of them for a ride. Unfortunately, Republicans in the Senate have yet to step up and join their Democratic colleagues and the Obama administration in seriously addressing the problem. Perhaps these GOP Senators are enrolled in a special online course in “creative problem avoidance” at University of Phoenix. Luckily for us, the certificates are likely worthless. Karl Frisch is a syndicated columnist and progressive political communications consultant. He can be reached at You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube or sign-up to receive his columns by email. Cross posted at Cagle.