It should come as no surprise that public opinion moves faster than the wheels of justice, but the comparative rates can be, at times, astonishing.
Over the past month, Corinthian Colleges, Inc., has become the devil incarnate in the public eye. Allegations, both legal and otherwise, of the for-profit educational institution’s manipulative marketing practices and false graduate placement data, as well as insufficient federal records, have led to a new focus on the organization.
Corinthian enrolls about 72,000 students annually in the United States and Canada, over one hundred campuses. Media outlets have been quick to report on this series of events—and, predictably, even quicker to pick sides.
Less predictably, the Department of Education’s activities have kept pace with these developments. After freezing federal student aid grants to the corporation at the end of June, the executive branch quickly granted the company $16 million in exchange for a plan, finalized last week, for Corinthian to sell eighty-five of its campuses and close another dozen.
All of these negotiations have occurred without formal legal proceedings or any well-researched, publicly available data regarding the aforementioned allegations, as pointed out by multiple more conservative news sources.
Concealing Information while Condemning Corinthian
I would be the last to defend the for-profit education sector. The work of TCF fellow Suzanne Mettler, as well as research out of the Government Accountability Office and the College Board, consistently shows that those who attend for-profit postsecondary institutions pay more, have more trouble paying down their student loan debt, and are less likely to secure stable employment upon graduation than their counterparts at public and private nonprofit institutions.
Never mind that this industry, which has expanded tremendously over the past fifteen years alone and peaked at 1.7 million students in 2010, relies on the federal government for between 80 to 90 percent of its revenue, principally delivered through student grants.
Those who attend for-profit postsecondary institutions pay more and are less likely to secure stable employment upon graduation.
These concerns do not, however, justify the swift and largely hidden nature of the recent proceedings between Corinthian and the Department of Education, nor the extent to which these happenings deny the public full knowledge of the institution’s alleged wrongdoings and the dangers of the for-profit education industry.
Decisions such as the Minnesota Office of High Education’s order prohibiting Minnesota residents from enrolling Corinthian and Senator Dick Durbin’s condemnation of the company further contribute to this trend that prevents the uncovering of additional data that would prove and shine more light on the missteps of these institutions. More importantly, such data would warn off potential students with well-researched, publicized data rather than anecdotally-supported claims, even if they are all true.
Broadening the Message to Rethink For-Profits
The problem is not just with Corinthian, but with the industry as a whole. Thus, public dialogue, as well as government action, should not focus upon Corinthian as a single bad actor, but rather as a representative of broader trends, so other for-profit educational institutions cannot quietly slink into the shadows.
Recent events should initiate a national conversation as to the desirability of the for-profit motive in the sphere of higher education, with the acknowledgement that for-profits account for 20 percent of the associate degrees currently granted in the United States.
Supplementary public information, data, and dialogue would more conclusively and wholly condemn the for-profit model. Making public all data leading the Department of Education to negotiate the approaching sale and closing of Corinthian sites would show how the arena of higher education has been co-opted by private, for-profit entities.
It would also show that this development has corrupted any institutional motivation to simply provide the best education possible. Providing consumers with this information would help them make the educational choices that best fit their needs.
An institution such as Corinthian, which is nearly wholly dependent on public money, should be made more transparent in its dealings, not less. Instead, government officials seem more intent on sweeping things under the carpet.
For example, a California judge ruled last Friday that Corinthian did not have to warn prospective students of the corporations’ recent financial woes on its website, further distinguishing between information available to government and educational consumers.
More Information Needed to Serve the Public Good
The Department of Education’s recently plans to review the federal financial aid programs at the Apollo Education Group, Inc.’s flagship, the University of Phoenix, is a step in the right direction to refocus energy upon the entire for-profit educational industry, rather than just Corinthian. But it may not be enough.
Apollo had revenue totals of $3.7 billion in 2013, and an enrollment of over 301,100. But a review of Apollo does nothing for the over 1 million students enrolled in for-profit institutions under no necessary evaluative process, regardless of the overwhelming anecdotal and logical evidence suggesting these institutions do not have the best interest of their students at heart.
The current legal and financial straits in which Corinthian finds itself will have positive long-term benefits upon the quality of American higher education, specifically in the for-profit sphere.
But justice will only be served when we know exactly what Corinthian did wrong, and when we have all learned from the dangers of introducing a profit motive into the marketplace of public education.