July 2, 2011

ForProfit.edu: Wherein I Probably Offend Everyone, But No Matter

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 1:15 pm

It seems that there is a battle brewing over the new Department of Education guidelines on issuing student loans to people who intend to enroll at for-profit schools such as the University of Phoenix.  The whole business is, in my opinion, a perfect example of the cynical dishonesty that both sides of politics in the U.S. exude, and I am going to say—and provide evidence for the assertion—that the side that is opposed to these regulations is determinedly missing a significant point in this.  All I can figure is that, unless it is poor idealistic blindness to what’s going on with these schools and many of the people that enroll, this is one of the most cynical positions I have ever seen taken in politics.  I am perfectly aware that what I am about to say may come off as angry, cold-blooded, and heartless.  Maybe that is indeed the case.  I’ve considered it before.  However, there is not a false word in this account.  Sometimes the truth is ugly and people are not what you want to believe they are.  I assure you, when I first started witnessing what I am about to describe, it was a total shell-shock to my then-rather liberal sensibilities. But as a scientist, I do not ignore valid data.

For background, as soon as the Department of Education issued guidelines requiring that a certain percentage of students graduate and find gainful employment for a school to be eligible for federal loans (which come from taxpayers’ money), the Republican Party and the conservative pundit establishment started to cry foul. There have been a variety of attacks used against these regulations. One of them is the expected attack that it is an anti-business move, since for-profit schools were singled out. I’m not going to address this; it is nothing but speculation and is irrelevant to my forthcoming point. Another, which in my opinion is extraordinarily cynical, is the attack that it is a way to keep low-income people from learning useful skills that can help them to find good jobs that don’t require a four-year degree, thereby keeping them on the dole (and the implication is that people on the dole are more likely to vote for politicians that continue or expand the dole).

Okay, that is relevant, as we shall see. However, the federal dole is not relevant in the way that conservatives who have taken on this issue seem to want to think it is.

For over a year, I worked in a computer lab where I frequently found myself assisting people in filling out FAFSA forms and enrollment applications. Now, there are, locally, two community colleges within 40 miles. There are two public four-year universities within 40 miles. There are even more traditional options within an expanded distance. These schools all have online classes, non-degree programs, and the community colleges offer technical degrees (career degrees that don’t transfer to a four-year Bachelor’s program) and job training. The cost of attending one of these schools is significantly less than attending an online for-profit college.

Well, consider this: If you are already living full-time on the dole, you aren’t thinking long-term, you perhaps have a history of ignoring financial obligations, and word gets around that you can get an order of magnitude more “student loan” money by pretending to be a student in a for-profit online school than you would by enrolling in a local college, what do you do?

That’s not speculation. I saw this happen. Each term, it would be a different for-profit online college that was selected as the vehicle for, essentially, stealing taxpayer money. Each term, the same group of locals would come into this facility, fill out their paperwork for enrolling in the exact same online school, fill out their FAFSA for obtaining student loans, including the personal expense stipend, and then fill out the school’s form for releasing as much of that money as possible to their own pocketbooks. They would make the pretense of enrolling in classes, often the same set of classes, and then… they would not do any homework. They would ignore their assignments. If the school had a policy that actually allowed the instructors to fail students (and not all of these places do), then no matter, because the “students” would have another for-profit college selected for the following term.  As long as they maintain constant enrollment, you see, the loans don’t fall due, and they can keep the cash flow coming.  With that, the process would begin again.   (That said, some of them must default at some point, because I strongly believe that this is part of why there is a high default rate on loans for for-profits.  However, people with the mentality I have described probably don’t care all that much about bad credit.  The only people who really pay a price are taxpayers who subsidize this.)

There was not a solitary thing any of us employees could do about it, because we could not possibly prove the intention to defraud.  And I am sorry, but this is fraud under any definition of the word, even if it is impossible to prosecute as such. I don’t know how widespread it is on a national scale, but there is a very distinct possibility that the poor statistics for for-profit colleges are not entirely due to subpar teaching, but to “students” who are taking advantage of their very loose admission criteria to steal from taxpayers and have no intention of acquiring an education. Unfortunately for everyone, the dole is set up so that one pretty much can live off it indefinitely (deservedly or not), as long as the right boxes are checked on the application forms and every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed. There have been whistleblowers before who have called attention to the fact that people are, in some places, actually taught how to fill out government forms to maximize the amount they get.  It should come as no surprise that a scheme like I have described would spring up.

None of this should be construed to mean that this deceitful activity is all that I ever saw at this job. There were many students who enrolled in online programs, both at the local public colleges and even some at for-profit colleges, who actually were sincere in their intention to learn something. They came back to this public computer lab to do their homework online and were concerned with their grades. And it’s been long enough now since I had that job that I would not trust myself to identify anyone in particular by sight as either an honest student or a fraudster. I can say with certainty that the dishonest ones made up at least a third of the whole adult “student” group that used these computers for any purpose. However, this isn’t about accusing anyone by name; it is about blowing a whistle on a practice that I have not seen anyone in the political sphere touch on when they talk about this issue. There may indeed be villainy on the part of some people involved with these for-profit schools in recruiting honest students with dishonest marketing. However, there is definitely villainy on the part of some purported “students” who merely want to dishonestly get their hands on federal cash.

It is incredibly disingenuous of these conservatives to act as though the regulations are a diabolical plot on the part of the Obama Administration to keep impoverished people from learning anything so they’ll stay on welfare and vote Democratic. Excuse me, but that is far too idealistic a view of the motives of some of the “students”—unless it is, in fact, just a cynical political ploy to paint the opposition as villains even if it means going against one’s principles.  If it really is ignorant idealism about the “students” and the cynicism is about the administration, then I’m afraid I must burst their bubble, but I have facts on my side from personal observation: At least some percentage of these “students” have no intention of getting off the dole and regard student loans for for-profit colleges as yet another form of it! They select these places because they get the largest amount of money for it and don’t have any difficulty in getting admitted.  Tuition at some of them apparently compares to that of an Ivy League university. All that federal cash without the rejections in the application process. And I honestly wouldn’t put it past some of the online schools to be perfectly aware of this and to not really object to it, since they get a cut of the federal money too. Why else would they admit “students” who provide transcripts from six different online schools that contain nothing but Fs (because the “students” have not done anything)?

Since you cannot order schools to adjust their admission standards and definitely cannot police the motives and future intentions of people who apply for student loan money, the only real options to keep taxpayers from being defrauded are either to completely abolish the federal student loan program (which would make college unaffordable for huge numbers of students or throw them to the tender mercies of private loan companies) or to set standards for the schools if they want to receive federal money.  If the poor performance of for-profit schools is in significant part due to fraudulent activity on the part of “students,” then that is a motivation (not a mandate, mind) to these schools to stop admitting people that have highly suspicious records.  If this were all private, of course, it would be a moot point for the government, but the taxpayer has a stake in this.  If dishonest fake students are prevented from enrolling and making off like bandits with student loan money, because they cannot get admitted with their past history, then everyone wins—the schools, the honest students, and the taxpayers.

Lastly, in case anyone gets the idea that I’ve only penned this to defend a policy of a Democratic administration, I’d like to note two things.  One, I have had serious complaints with them, and not always from the left side.  And two, this despicable student loan practice I have described so infuriated me as a taxpayer, an honest graduate student, and a person subsisting on a working-class income that it arguably killed off any vestige of… well, I can’t even think of any term for it other than “welfare-state progressivism.”  Whatever of that I once had is gone, and the rude awakening I had with this is why that happened. The fact that I’m using such an expression should tell just how much I have disowned that part of the philosophy.  I’m writing this piece because my conscience compels me to, not because of some partisan or ideological reason.


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