Saturday, October 17, 2009

Free Market Education

In a retention study a couple of years ago, I discovered quite convincingly that many students at the institution didn't understand the product they were buying: the highest risk group was low social capital (typically first generation) who had chosen the institution as their first choice. A couple of months later, most of those students had changed their minds about whether it really had been their first choice. Most of the details are unpublished, but you can find a bit here.

If we generalize this, we reach a conclusion that's not too far-fetched, viz. that the population of students that is most vulnerable is also at the greatest risk of failure because they are uninformed. Vulnerabilities include not understanding how higher education works because they are not sophisticated consumers of the product. In the case of the retention study, students probably relied more on local reputation and geographical proximity than a real survey of options. Other vulnerabilities include financial naivete and barriers to admittance in traditional four-year schools because of low grades and test scores. All of these tend to go together in a bundle of misery. There are ditches on either side of the road to enlightenment: one is simply giving up in the face of the complexity of it, and the other is being taken advantage of by unethical operators. This article is about the latter.

In "Survival Strategies" I mused about a discount behemoth that joins the economies of scale of Walmart with the online commercialization of education of University of Phoenix. I imagined that for-profit institutions would use their competitive advantage to drive costs down. I haven't found evidence of that outside the open education movement. On the contrary, the for-profits seem to want to milk every last cent out of the subsidized education market, in some cases preying on those students with limited options or limited horizons.

In the unfortunately titled article "A Neo-Liberal Arts Education," Danny Weil writes about Alta Colleges Inc., which is a story like we've heard before: buy an existing institution and "flip" it to for-profit, go massively online and rake in subsidy dollars [Edit: I showed my own ignorance here--I didn't know what neoliberalism was. See the comments]. I described this in "Survival Strategies" as a way to quickly get the accreditation status needed to attain status and eligibility for state and federal aid. In the case of Alta College Inc., they were content with national accreditation rather than regional. How many applicants know the difference? How many applicants from the population I described earlier would know that national accreditation is nearly worthless?

Weil makes a case that deregulation fanned the flames:
In 2002, for example, around the time Alta Colleges, Inc. saw tremendous growth and soaring profits, Sally Stroup, the top lobbyist for the University of Phoenix, was appointed the Department of Education's assistant secretary for post-secondary education. During her tenure, which ended in 2006, the Department of Education softened rules that prevented the career colleges from obtaining more than 90 per cent of their income from federal aid.
I must note that this article appears on a political e-zine, and the title seems to make a bizarre charge that fraud is the same as "new liberal education." This is particularly odd since blame is placed squarely on the Bush administration. Maybe I'm too dumb to figure it out, but the color of politics detracts from an otherwise fascinating article. You can read it and judge for yourself; I'll try to stick to what can be verified elsewhere. For example, students of Westwood College, owned by Alta College Inc., have filed a class-action suit claiming:
Respondents engaged in deceptive and illegal trade practices continuously throughout the course of a student’s interactions with the colleges. From the moment of initial contact, Westwood specializes in a high-pressure, sales-oriented recruiting program with a solitary goal of increasing student enrollments. Admissions Representatives intentionally mislead or lie to students regarding the actual costs and fees associated with enrollment, job placement opportunities and statistics, credit transferability, and the value of the school’s accreditation.
There are other charges, including the detail that the cost of three years' education at Westwood is between $69,000 and $81,000. This is far more than average cost at a low or mid tier private liberal arts school per year (take nominal tuition and discount by about 40%). According to the complaint, this cost was not transparent to students. The brief also accuses admissions representatives of purposefully misleading students "into assuming that the national
accreditation is of equal value and reputation as regional accreditation and omit any explanation of the various forms of accreditation," noting that:
It is common industry knowledge that nationally-accredited institutions regularly accept credits from both regionally- and nationally-accredited institutions, but that regionally-accredited institutions generally will not accept credits from nationally-accredited institutions. [...] By way of example, one Admissions Representative promised a potential student that Westwood credits would be transferable to the University of Florida or Florida State University if the student ultimately got an offer from a “classier, shinier school”, as long as the course descriptions were the same. Representatives from both Florida colleges said they would not accept credits from Westwood College under any circumstance because Westwood is not regionally-accredited.
There is also some insight into how to flip a college: use call center agents to provide counseling, advising, registration, class selection, enrollment, and financial aid services. It's a sales pitch from beginning to end. These "admissions representatives" have quotas to keep their jobs, the suit states.

The Westwood College website is well-designed, and completely focused on admissions. The website set up by the James Hoyer Law firm called is less formal, but has its own appeal.

In a post called "Virtual Loans", I noted that colleges could benefit from running their own loan programs, but I never imagined how badly that could turn out. It seems that Alta Inc. isn't content with PELL grants and subsidized loans. Weil writes that they "loaned" money to students themselves--without even telling students they were doing so--through an "Apex loan program." I found some corrabating information in an Associated Press article:
One for-profit school, Colorado-based Westwood College, has been hit with a class-action lawsuit accusing it of fraud and arguing that its lending program violates state banking laws. Westwood charges a relatively high 18 percent interest but doesn't call its lending student loans. [...]

Jessica Rosales was 17 when she enrolled at Westwood's Inland Empire campus near Los Angeles. She dropped out after one term and was later told she owed Westwood around $18,000 — nearly half in interest and collection fees. Rosales said that the school misled her about the source of her aid and that she never signed a loan from the school.
Because "virtual loans" are just deferred tuition payments, I can see how you could play semantic games with it, and turn "interest rate" into a "finance charge." It's pretty ugly.

Weils ends his article with a non-sequitur, linking an increase in PELL grant money to debt. I'm not sure what the logic is there, but because this is part of Obama's stimulus package, I suppose that is the link to "neo-liberal" nonsense. It's obviously the wrong conclusion to reach from the evidence presented.

How widespread is this kind of mischief? posted "Ferreting Out Financial Aid Fraud" this week. The site is down right now (!) so I can't access the actual report, but article centers on as many as a million students who did not graduate from high school nevertheless getting federal aid for college . Presumably most of these are at for-profits, community colleges, or tech schools. Such applicants are supposed to take an Ability-to-Benefit test. You can read about it on a college website here. Unsurprisingly, test results get spoofed (Zog's Lemma again).

A GAO representative is quoted in the article as saying:
[E]arly findings [...] have revealed evidence that student aid funds are being disbursed to ineligible students in online programs or to students who have dropped out of these programs.
In summary, students get defrauded and taxpayers get defrauded. I see more regulation in the industry's future. The question is can it be regulated? If not, it's another nail in the coffin of the current order of things.

Speaking of regulation, there was an attempt to weaken transfer policies nationally through the Higher Education Opportunity Act. The actual text of the thing is nearly unreadable, so I'm relying on this nice summary at Council on Law in Higher Education. Quote:
Transfer-of-credit policies were the subject of much debate during the most recent reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (“HEA”). Postsecondary institutions that are accredited by national accreditors complained that institutions that are accredited by regional accreditors unfairly deny students’ requests to transfer credit solely because the credit was earned at an institution that is not regionally accredited.

At times during the reauthorization process, proposed legislation included language that would have prohibited institutions to refuse to consider transfer requests based solely on the accredited status of an institution as long as the accreditor was recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education.
This isn't hard to figure out. For-profits make lots of money, but are stymied by restrictive transfer problems, so they hire lobbyists to try to force high quality schools to take their credits. We probably have passed the worst risk to the system falling into anarchy--the conditions were perfect for the for-profits during the construction of the HEOA: an administration bent on deregulation and rivers of for-profit money available to buy influence. For now, that time seems to be over, but the fundamental issues remain. For-profit, not-for-profit, and open education will evolve and find market niches. Massive discount online education hasn't arrived yet, but the potential is there. It's going to be a wild ride for those of us in the industry.


  1. Anonymous8:34 PM

    Hello, David and thanks for referencing and reading my article. You state:

    “I must note that this article appears on a political e-zine, and the title seems to make a bizarre charge that fraud is the same as "new liberal education."

    Neo-liberalism, David, describes the economic system we live in and the title was a sardonic take on the fact government monies are sent to private for-profit institutions.

    “This is particularly odd since blame is placed squarely on the Bush administration.”

    No David, only in this case of deregulation, part of the neo-liberal economic strategy we have seen since the late 1970’s.

    “Maybe I'm too dumb to figure it out, but the color of politics detracts from an otherwise fascinating article.

    Politics is about power, David. Everything is political; all points of view are biased. Sure, I am biased not for regulation of these schools, but for putting them out of business, as I am for putting ‘health care providers’ with the same private stench out of business. Education is a human right not a commodity. Here I think you and I would agree.

    You can read it and judge for yourself; I'll try to stick to what can be verified elsewhere.”

    It all can be verified, as you show David.

    Until people begin to see that whether it is education, transportation, health or communication as long as we feed tax monies to these hucksters we, most of society and our kids lose. For the corporation has a fiduciary responsibility to make money for their private owners or shareholders, David. Education is just the commodity being sold. Profit is primary, has to be by law.

    This is why it is important for people to understand the notion of education within the framework of privatization and yes, neo-liberal politics and law. I suggest David Harvey’s excellent work on this matter or Henry Giroux’s “The Terror of Neoliberalism”.

    As to the online education boom that is starting, yes you can google the article “College for $99.00 a month”. It is even worse when you get to the ‘military for profit colleges’ that are popping up like liquor stores. It will put public education out of business if not reigned in and then once collared, squashed like a bug. And this means the money spent on Pell Grants will go into the coffin being lowered in the ground that is public education. No doubt the cemetery is privately run as well.

    Of course there is nothing wrong with a government of and for the people giving money to students to go to school to receive an education that promotes critical thinking, democracy, decent work, morality and learning, but that’s not the case with the for-profit colleges, as you know. In the government of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations the role of the ‘state’ is to transfer wealth from working people to privateers like the group at Westwood, or charter schools, vouchers etc. The role of the coin operated politicians is to aid and abet the process with the suck puppet corporate press.

    Yes, it is all political and we can hope it gets more so, with working people alliances and massive mobilization for human rights. For until working people fight for their right to an education and a government that represents more one percent of the population, we will talk about the destruction of public education until it is, as Norquist said about government, “drowned in a bathtub”.

    The answer now is to protect and strengthen public institutions and we do this by recognizing our moment in history, organizing and making change. But you won’t learn this at a ‘neo-liberal’ college, will you?

    Thanks, David

    Danny Weil

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Danny. I understand your perspective better, and find a lot to agree with. There are a lot of problems all wound up together, it seems to me, and the two I've focused on are the massive gov't subsidies for education and the transformative power of the Internet. Public education as a right (like Germany) could undoubtedly be done better and cheaper if we started from scratch and built it so. Unfortunately, rebooting the higher ed system (or the tax code, or the health care situation) from null doesn't seem likely. If you could, say, pass a law saying that gov't aid is only granted at public institutions it would make a certain amount of sense, but the private schools would mostly go out of business within a year. An immediate impact could be made by simply restricting ed loans to the actual cost of education. Students have for a long time taken out extra money to buy stuff TVs and bass boats, but now they're doing it so their parents can pay the rent. In the bigger picture, I think there is the possibility that the whole form of higher education will be reshaped (think: music industry). I wrote about that here.

    I obviously showed my own ignorance in not knowing knowing what "neoliberalism" is. You have to admit that given the strident public discourse between "liberal" and "conservative" it's counter-intuitive that neoliberalism would mean economic liberalism: deregulation and all hail the free market, which has been a conservative line in this country. So "neo-liberal college" makes a lot more sense now. I'll put a note in the article to that effect.

    Good luck and thanks again for the note.