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Higher Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Higher Education Initiative

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The Chronicle of Higher Education Falls Down on the Job

Published:  February 16, 2010

As many Higher Ed Watch readers know, I worked at The Chronicle of Higher Education for 15 years before joining New America. For that reason, I find it difficult to criticize the Chronicle and my former colleagues who work there. However, after reading the publication’s recent series on the for-profit higher education industry, I felt that I needed to speak out.

Last week, the Chronicle ran a series of articles focused on the enormous growth of the for-profit college sector over the past three decades. Throughout the series, which includes three articles (see here, here, and here) and a Q&A with a senior vice president at Kaplan Higher Education, readers are told over and over again how “nimble” and “robust” these colleges are in comparison to the rest of higher education. While public colleges and universities tend to be “large and impersonal,” for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix “promise students smaller classes, more personal attention, and a clear path to degrees and jobs,” one article states. [The Chronicle fails to note that all of that “personal attention” doesn’t pay off for many of their students. In fact, less than one third of first-time, full-time students who attend the University of Phoenix graduate within six years.]

According to the lead article in the series traditional colleges cater first and foremost to the needs of their faculty members, while “students are the No. 1 concern” of proprietary institutions. How do we know this? Current and former officials at Devry University and Education Management Corporation’s Argosy University tell us so. “We have crafted our entire world around students,” says Donna Loraine, Devry’s vice president for academic affairs. “We are here to improve their futures, not make it more convenient for us.” [As if the leaders of other types of colleges, particularly small liberal arts ones, wouldn’t say the exact same thing.] There are plenty of former career college students -- stuck with unmanageable loads of debt for training that has left them stranded -- who would beg to differ. One wonders how the article would read with some input from these students.

Now it is certainly true that for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix are popular with working adult students because they tend to offer more flexible class schedules and a more streamlined vocational-oriented curriculum than traditional colleges do. It is also true, however that there have been widespread allegations of fraud and abuse throughout the sector, particularly at the nation’s largest chains of proprietary schools. But you wouldn’t know it from reading the Chronicle stories. The only place where these charges come up is in the Q & A with Kaplan’s senior vice president, who predictably dismisses them.

What's Left Out

The Chronicle articles fail to acknowledge that some of the largest publicly-traded for-profit higher education companies have in recent years come under intense scrutiny from federal and state regulators and have faced numerous lawsuits by former employees, shareholders, and students over allegations that they have engaged in misleading recruiting and admissions tactics to inflate their enrollment numbers. With all of the glowing praise for the University of Phoenix throughout the package, one would expect that there would at least be some mention of the $78.5 million settlement that the university’s owners reached recently in a False Claims lawsuit that accused the institution of routinely violating a federal law that aims to prevent schools from aggressively recruiting unqualified students.

Such concerns have prompted the U.S. Department of Education to start a process of rewriting its student aid regulations to strengthen a federal ban on colleges compensating recruiters based on their success in enrolling students. Department officials are also planning to add teeth to the rules requiring for-profit colleges to show that graduates are finding “gainful employment” in their fields of study and to regulations that forbid schools from willfully misleading prospective students. Incredibly, the Chronicle articles make no mention of the Education Department’s efforts. The Chronicle has dutifully reported on the recently completed negotiated rulemaking sessions on these topics -- so this omission is absolutely mind-boggling. In a package of stories that runs nearly 7,000 words, the federal government’s concerns about many of these institutions certainly merit attention.

Finding evidence that students are not always being well-served is not that difficult. For example, Corinthian Colleges recently announced that nine of its Everest College campuses have 2008 cohort default rates exceeding 25 percent, including two topping 30 percent. In other words, an alarming number of the schools’ former students who entered repayment on their federal student loans during the 2008 fiscal year defaulted on them within two years. Moreover, Corinthian expects that 56 to 58 percent of the private loan funds that the company provides to high-risk students with sub-prime credit records will eventually end up in default. Isn’t this a reason for concern that is worth noting?

Larger Issues at Play?

Newspapers today are struggling to survive. They are under tremendous pressure to find innovative ways to raise revenue. The for-profit higher education industry is only too willing to open its pocketbooks to help out. Just look at the relationship that the Washington Post has forged with Kaplan University.

The Chronicle has not been immune to these pressures. Last summer, when the publication was looking for financing for its annual “Leadership Forum,” a “must-attend event for the executives who run American higher education,” it turned to the University of Phoenix, which became the forum’s sole sponsor. According to marketing materials that the newspaper posts on-line, sponsors of this event are promised “hours of networking opportunities with Forum attendees and Chronicle editors and reporters,” as well as “exclusive access” to the higher education leaders who “control billions of dollars in spending.” Even more ominously, sponsors are promised “significant exposure among the nearly 325,000 readers of the Chronicle in print and the more than 1.5 million visitors to Chronicle.com."

As a former longstanding Chronicle of Higher Education employee, I don't believe that the publication is selling its coverage to the highest bidder. But given the arrangement that the Chronicle made with the University of Phoenix last summer, you’d think that the newspaper would be extra vigilant to protect itself from these types of charges.

To be sure, we do not expect the Chronicle, which considers itself to be the newspaper of record for higher education coverage, to take sides in the fight to reform for-profit higher education. But we do expect some balanced reporting. On that measure, the series of stories the Chronicle ran last week on the University of Phoenix and the other big players in the for-profit higher education industry was a tremendous disappointment.

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