The Corinthian Colleges, one of the largest for-profit college chains in America, decided last month to sell 85 and shut down 12 of its campuses nationwide — the final nail in the coffin of this corporate university giant. With it, the post-secondary education company has dragged the fundamental issues of for-profit education under the magnifying glass.
Corinthian’s downfall follows allegations about fabricating job placement statistics, grades and attendance. California Attorney General Kamala Harris has been actively campaigning against these claims since last year, which expand to emotionally manipulative advertising that targets families in poverty while falsely promising them a high-quality education, career counseling and personal attention — all at the oh-so-reasonable price of $40,000 for an associate’s degree, a tag that is 10 times the cost of a comparable education at a community college, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Despicable doesn’t quite begin to cover this debacle. Corinthian officials painstakingly crafted marketing pitches to capitalize on the dream of using education as a gateway to a better life, while advisers sidestepped questions about debt and credit transfer. Corinthian spokesman Kent Jenkins claimed a 69 percent job placement rate — inflated artificially by many means, one of which considers former employment and employment at temp agencies as job placement, according to a former employee. In reality, according to the L.A. Times, almost 37 percent of students defaulted on school loan debt within 3 years of graduating.
Heidi Vella, a 50-year-old student previously in Everest College’s surgical assistant program, had been drowning in debt ever since graduating in 2010. She finally found a temporary position in her field two years later.
“If I ever thought that my life would be where it is now, I never would have gone to Everest. It’s made my life worse,” Vella told the L.A. Times.
As higher education becomes a larger prerequisite for jobs, more individuals in or near poverty seek practical ways to gain a degree and specialized skills. Often these individuals come from families that have never gone to college. So to turn around and manipulate these individuals when they are in need of assistance is a particularly ruthless brand of deception that spits in the face of education programs everywhere.
Corinthian’s profiteering revolves around federal funding. According to the Wall Street Journal, the college chain receives about $1.4 billion in federal funds every year. The more students the company enrolls, the more funding it gets, giving them motivation to attract as many students as possible to maximize profits. The philosophy of Corinthian’s traditions, however, is much more disturbing than just the effects at face value. According to the Corinthian homepage, they strive to uphold their core values, which include “integrity, service, excellence and accountability.” The irony of its professed commitment to “integrity” and “accountability” is not lost on the hundreds of thousands of students misled by the system. Its core values add yet another layer of deception to what should be the fundamental base of the Corinthian education system, which is instead fueled by a voracious hunger for profits.
Corinthian is not alone in its deceptive practices. The Premier Education Group was sued in 2011 for similarly misrepresenting records and requirements in order to keep federal funding. The Education Management Corporation was sued in 2011 for encouraging students to enroll and pay even if they did not qualify for the program. QuinStreet Inc. was sued in 2012 for preying on veterans and other students. Last week, the San Diego campus of the University of Phoenix was banned from adding veterans to seven of its programs following allegations that it unfairly targeted military personnel eligible for federal funding. The list goes on and on.
The important question to address following these ethical violations is whether there is a fundamental problem with the concept of for-profit education. Sure, primarily financial motives definitely don’t sound good, but corporations in the past have proven to stand their ground or even surpass nonprofits in terms of efficiency. The effectiveness of corporations rings especially true for fields that require constant innovation — and higher education could use some innovation. Perhaps for-profit colleges have not had the chance to stand on their own.
The Obama administration has worked on making the for-profit college sector accountable, but more action is needed. If for-profit colleges want to treat students as consumers, then fine — but they shouldn’t be rewarded with federal funding. In fact, removing federal funding might actually help these corporations become more transparent. Desperate moves to keep graduation numbers and federal funding up will be replaced by efforts to build a trustworthy reputation like any other corporation. Though such a procedure will require some serious investors considering the astronomical costs of running a college, if set up and executed properly, it’s definitely possible.