Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Great Training Robbery

As regular readers know, I'm usually unimpressed by The New York Times' coverage of higher education. But this story is almost adequate.

It's a description of the interplay of Federal financial aid, very high tuition, and the Great Recession at several for-profit colleges. Focusing mostly on culinary programs offered at several branches of Career Education Corporation, it describes students paying $20,000-$30,000 per year for degrees in fields that are marketed as leading to high-paying jobs, but that often result in nothing more than the entry-level positions students could have obtained without the degree. Students sign up out of a combination of desperation, willingness to believe what sales/admissions reps tell them, and the knowledge that much of their tuition will be covered by financial aid. The quote that jumped off the screen for me was about halfway through the article:

By the 2011-12 school year, the administration now estimates, students at for-profit schools should receive more than $10 billion in Pell grants, more than their public counterparts. (emphasis added)

That's the dirty secret of the for-profit funding model as it's currently constructed. While the for-profits love to describe themselves as the free-market alternative to public higher ed, the vast majority of their revenue comes from the government, as channeled through students. Take away their financial aid eligibility, and they close.

Or if you prefer: to the extent that public higher ed shifts costs to students, its funding model comes closer to that of the for-profits. As the funding model goes, so must go the decisions. It's the force of economic gravity.

Still, the tragic flaw of the article was its lack of comparative perspective. To my reading, the real scandal isn't that for-profit providers will charge what the market/government will bear, or that students will take flyers on dicey careers. That's to be expected. It's that despite the well-documented flaws in the workforce-development model of education, policymakers keep steering community colleges in that direction.

If the graduates of the various culinary programs got the jobs they expected, would the Times still object? If not, then the real story isn't the programs; it's the job market. Not naming any names, but I know some community and public colleges with degree programs in vocational fields, even including culinary. How are their grads doing? From this story, it's impossible to tell. I also know some colleges with degrees in accounting, computer information systems, criminal justice, and the various strands of allied health. (What, exactly, is allied health allied with? I've never understood that.)

Nothing against any of those programs per se. Each has its merits -- heaven knows we need police officers and nurses -- but to present any of them as a ticket to a guaranteed job is irresponsible in the extreme. The 'training' model falls short when markets for various fields got hot and cold unpredictably, which they inevitably do. I don't know what the next hot thing will be, or the one after that. (If I did, I'd buy stock in it.) Nobody does. While some students choose fields of study based on love of the subject, we all know that many make choices based on anticipated employability after graduation. (The bane of the philosophy major is the relative who keeps asking "what are you going to do with that?") Any serious student of the American economy would have to admit that yesterday's 'sure thing' is today's sinking ship. Taking tuition money based on untenable -- even if well-intended -- promises doesn't do the students any good.

While it's fine to equip students for fields in which they're likely to be immediately useful, there's a larger responsibility to help students develop the skills that will come in handy no matter what the economy does. To me, that's the relevant line of inquiry when examining a program, whether at a for-profit or elsewhere. Okay, the students are being trained in some specialized skills. Are they also developing their communication skills at a college level? Do they fall to pieces when confronted by grownup math? Can they make an argument using evidence, or tell when they're being sold a bill of goods? Do they have some vague sense of a world larger than their own experience?

There's an old joke about the economist who's asked to predict what will happen with interest rates over the next few years. He gets a distracted expression, strokes his chin, and announces "I believe they will fluctuate." I don't know what the next hot fields will be, but I believe they will fluctuate. The scandal isn't that a gamble on this specialization or that one didn't pay off. It's that the training was so narrow that the students couldn't adjust when things changed. If a for-profit can give them both the training and the education, then I don't have an issue with it. If it -- or any other college -- provides training and stops at that, that's the real scandal.

So one cheer for the Times. It buried the lede and missed a good chunk of the point, but at least it got part of the topic right. Maybe if it hired some better bloggers...