the Washington Post’s ugly but profitable education arm

The Washington Post bravely investigates itself before someone else takes it out at the knees. At the heart of the story is the Post Company’s for-profit education arm, Kaplan, which, like Liberty University, receives a huge amount of federal student aid money, much of which is borrowed by unqualified students who will never pay it back:

Public money means public accountability, and critics said Kaplan fell short. Two-thirds of Kaplan’s students drop out before graduating. In Kaplan’s largest unit, nearly one-third default within three years of leaving the school. But Kaplan notes that only a small percentage of its graduates default.

Some have complained that they were not properly counseled about the risks

There are a lot of complaints these days about the for-profit education sector, and rightly so, but to some extent the for-profits are only doing more egregiously what many not-for-profit colleges, universities and professional schools do more subtly. Having been researching law school recently, I can tell you that unless you have an outside source of funding (the G.I. Bill, wealthy parents, the Inuit Legal Scholars’ Fund), professional school can be a very bad bet. This Metafilter post covers the main bullet points: tuition is astronomical, there’s a glut of new lawyers, and a lot of work is being outsourced or offshored anyway. Taking on $200,000 in debt to compete in that kind of job market is sheer foolishness. But it’s an extremely attractive foolishness. Law is still a very prestigious field, partly because the pubic hasn’t caught up to the numbers yet, but mostly, I think, because law is a very special kind of knowledge that confers a lot of power and privilege in a heavily legislated and litigated society. The social authority assumed to be bestowed by a law degree is so great that many prospective students simply can’t imagine that a real lawyer would be unable to pay down his educational debt.

Colleges aren’t much better. College tuition rose three times as fast as household incomes between 1982 and 2007. Vastly greater undergraduate debt loads account for most of that growth, despite the plain fact that many graduates in the humanities and the social sciences will simply not make enough money on graduation to both repay that debt and maintain an adequate standard of living.

Michael Lind of the New America Foundation argued in January that politicians tend to beat the drum for more and better education because saying that everyone should go to college is easier than addressing the structural reasons many high school graduates can’t get meaningful work in America anymore. The effect of that drumbeat is to drive kids into college who may not be ready for the work or who may not yet have the life experience to know what college is for. And because pretending that everyone needs to go to college is easier than making real policy changes to fix the economy, there are plenty of federal loan dollars greasing the rails on the college track. But browbeating 17- and 18-year-olds into taking on tens of thousands of dollars in debt so they can muck around and find themselves for four years is a particularly irresponsible sort of social engineering.

So are the Post Company and Kaplan (and other for-profits) engaged in unscrupulous practices? Probably, but the difference between the behavior of those schools and that of, say, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts is mostly a matter of style and class, not one of substance.

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