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The takeaway from the for-profit schools debacle

college-costsFollowing on last week’s announcement of a $531 million judgment against the for-profit Corinthian College chain, the New Yorker’s James Surowiecki has this post-mortem in which he notes the decline of other giants in that sector — most notably the University of Phoenix, which saw enrollment drop by half since 2010.  And as he adds, last week the Department of Defense said it would no longer fund soldiers enrolled there.

Schools like Corinthian and U. Phoenix launched their programs ostensibly to make college available to more and often non-traditional students, but did so by pushing those students into loan debt they could never cover. Federal regulators are finally cracking down on that business model, and while that may mean reduced access to college for some, it raises this important question: At what price does that post-secondary education become meaningless?

Writes Surowiecki:

The crackdown is long overdue, but there’s an important consequence: fewer nontraditional students will be able to go to college. Defenders of the for-profit industry, including Republicans in Congress, have emphasized this point in order to forestall tougher regulation.

But if we really want more people to go to college we should put more money into community colleges and public universities, which have been starved of funding in recent years. We should also rethink our assumption that college is always the right answer, regardless of cost. Politicians love to invoke education as the solution to our economic ills. But they’re often papering over the fact that our economy just isn’t creating enough good jobs for ordinary Americans. The notion that college will transform your job prospects is, in many cases, an illusion, and for a while for-profit schools turned it into a very lucrative one.

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