Replace Obama’s higher education report card with better regulations

September 2, 2013

When President Barack Obama made a speech this week about having his own special scorecard for higher education institutions, I wasn’t clapping. Here’s why.

It’s not that I think LaGrange College would do pretty poorly, or that Columbus State University or the University of West Georgia would take it on the chin. All would probably do pretty well. But this “report card” wouldn’t really solve the problems in higher education, and could be hijacked by higher education institutions who would donate more to get a better rating.

I want the problem of student loan default rates solved as much as you do. After all, I’m not just a professor. I’m also a parent with two kids who want to go to college in the future. And I’m a taxpayer who is worried about deficits and the increase in student borrowing from the U.S. government.

This week, the AAUP slammed a Wall Street Journal reporter’s assertion that it is all about bloated faculty salaries, using hard data to back up their counter-argument. But I’m not sure I agree with the group’s belief that higher administration salaries and staff costs are to blame. We’ve got some pretty good administrators and valuable staffers who keep these higher education institutions going through some tough times. Such in-fighting isn’t always productive.

But a recent interview with the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) caught my attention. The Yahoo Finance reporter asked Jeff Selingo about these same problems. He pointed the finger at for-profit colleges. According to his figures, for-profit college students make up 13 percent of the total number of students in higher education, and 50 percent of all student loan defaults. Plus, their graduation rates are almost half of what you’ll see from non-profit private colleges and public universities.

That’s not all. The Huffington Post reported on a number of state investigations into those job numbers you see them touting in ads made by for-profit colleges. It turns out that just going to a job fair could count as employment, and their idea of higher end jobs is different from most people’s conception of those, and what they pay.

I know you’re all devotees of the free market, and you believe profits are good. We all need less reliance on the government, right? If only for-profit colleges believed that as well. Selingo’s research showed that 86 percent of for-profit college revenue came from taxpayers like you and me. They get a sizable chunk of federal education money meant for veterans.

But aren’t for-profit colleges mostly online, and therefore cheaper? If only. Actually, the CHE editor discovered that the total costs of going to one can add up to what nonprofit private colleges charge, and more than public colleges. And data from the National Center on Education Statistics (NCES) showed that more students had to borrow to go to a for-profit college than is the case at other types of colleges and universities.

For-profit colleges got a number of things right. They took on students that other colleges and universities wouldn’t touch. Their focus on online delivery shook up the traditional college scene. But the evidence shows that better regulation of for-profit colleges would do a lot more to solve the problem than an Obama College Report Card.