The court of public opinion has not been kind to the for-profit college sector over the last few years. In particular, the reputations of the 15 publicly traded companies that dominate the sector have been tarnished through repeated stories of alleged abuse of federal financial aid programs and students aggressively lured into programs where some end up with unmanageable debt.
But for-profit education did not always operate this way. Some of the same companies barraged by today’s negative headlines were innovators of new business models that served populations left out of the traditional postsecondary education space. Others offered training programs for years before there even was a Higher Education Act that made federal financial aid available to students.
What led so many companies astray is a story of strategic choices made at the height of the 2000s boom. Faced with the means to achieve infinite scalability by tapping into a federal entitlement program, the opportunity to use online learning to cut costs, and motivated by Wall Street cash and its accompanying investor pressures, several companies pursued hypergrowth at all costs. They moved away from traditional missions, pursuing any and all students they could through sophisticated recruitment machines designed to feed the neverending demand for hitting enrollment and earnings targets.
U.S. Department of Education data on students who left school in 2008 and 2009 at the peak of the for-profit college boom show just how bad the strategic emphasis on growth over quality has been. In total, 40 percent of programs offered by publicly traded companies, representing 48 percent of for-profit students in the data, fail one or both of the tests of debt-to-earnings and student loan default that the Education Department is proposing to use to judge the success of career training programs. This includes 44 percent of students enrolled in colleges owned by the Apollo Group, which runs the University of Phoenix. It also includes 90 percent of students at ITT Technical Institutes.
But companies like Strayer and Capella that took a more measured approach to growth look much better in the data. Not a single program at Strayer appears to be leaving graduates overly indebted or headed for default, while just one of Capella’s 96 programs has problems — a bachelor’s degree in health informatics. Capella’s income results are so strong that not a single program had a debt-to-earnings ratio above 1 percent.
The results for Apollo and ITT are particularly troubling because these are two companies with long operating histories that used to be some of the best examples of what successful for-profit education could be. The ITT Technical Institutes actually predate the Higher Education Act by nearly 20 years and were clearly able to recruit and educate students without being wholly reliant upon the federal grants and loans that make up the majority of its revenue. From its founding in the 1970s until the early 2000s, Phoenix would not admit students unless they were 23 or older, were working full-time, and had at least two years of workplace experience. This helped it build and maintain a reputation as a high-quality option for working adults that other colleges were reluctant to educate.
For those seeking to maximize profit, the entitlement nature of the federal student aid programs provides a clear path to unlimited growth. Anyone who meets minimal eligibility criteria qualifies for at least a multithousand-dollar student loan. Low-income students — the ones who just happen to be the least likely to go to college and can be recruited with the least competition — can bring thousands more in additional revenue each and every year through federal Pell Grants. As long as companies could find American students, there was little ceiling to the growth possibilities.
The internet pushed that growth ceiling even higher. Digital coursework could reach students anywhere in the country at a substantially reduced cost. Finding sufficient concentrations of students to justify face-to-face investments like classrooms and more professors became totally unnecessary. The recruitment pool had effectively become anyone with a pulse and an internet connection.
Entitlement programs and distance learning provided an opportunity and means for exceptional growth, but it was Wall Street that came in with the motive. The Apollo Group and ITT became publicly traded in the mid-1990s. At Apollo, enrollments rose from 124,000 in the fall of 2001 to 470,800 in the fall of 2010. ITT, meanwhile, grew from 28,600 to 88,000 over the same period.
Enrollments grew even faster from 2006 on, fueled by cheap credit available elsewhere in the economy and constant demands for showing increased student starts. But such growth pressure can coexist with historical standards and missions only while there’s a glut of students who fit that mold. Once that pool is tapped out, either standards or enrollment targets have to give.
Standards and institutional mission lost. Phoenix removed its enrollment requirements and began placing more emphasis on two-year degrees to students regardless of age or work experience through Axia College. A university with over two decades of experience catering to one type of student immediately started enrolling anyone it could. As former Phoenix Senior Vice President John Murphy wrote in his book Mission Forsaken, “It was a money-spinning financial decision, but a cheerless academic disaster.”
The Education Department data show what an academic disaster looks like in numerical terms. Take Phoenix’s associate degree in office management and supervision. It is the second-largest associate degree program offered by any institution in the country. And more than 9,800 of the 27,500 students who started making payments on federal student loans for this program from October 2008 through the following September ended up defaulting on their debt by the fall of 2012. These individuals had their credit ruined and balances inflated through a host of fees and penalties, and will almost certainly never be able to discharge their debts through bankruptcy.
The office management and supervision program is just one of 20 programs at Phoenix with a default rate of 30 percent or higher. This represents over 32,200 individuals — about the same size as the University of Alabama. Every single one of these programs offers an associate degree. It even includes programs that should have direct market payoff, such as network systems administration (default rate of 44 percent) and information technology (42 percent).
By contrast, Phoenix’s graduate programs do not look so bad. None of them had unacceptable results and just one — a doctorate in higher education management — had a default rate over 15 percent. Two doctoral programs (business administration and organizational leadership) even had typical earnings over $100,000. One has to wonder how many students might have been prevented unnecessary financial harm had Phoenix stuck to its core business model and not pursued such expansion.
Unfortunately, Phoenix provided a case study for other companies to emulate, especially for recruitment. For ITT that meant creating an aggressive recruitment machine that used a “pain funnel” tactic to increase enrollment by preying on students’ fears and insecurities. And since many of those students were low-income, it created new debt products for students who needed money to cover the gap between tuition and federal aid.
The high-growth model has created legal headaches and poor student results for ITT. It has the largest share of students in failing programs of any publicly traded company. ITT also has programs like its $47,000 associate degree in visual communications, where a higher percentage of students default on federal student loans (45 percent) than find jobs in their field (30 percent).
ITT has also run afoul of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which sued the company in February for the debt it offered to cover tuition gaps. In its lawsuit the CFPB alleged that ITT lured students into high-priced private student loans with default rates as high as 60 percent and “sacrificed its students’ futures by saddling them with debt on which it knew they would likely default.”
Recent efforts suggest that there may be ways to turn back the tide and get some companies to focus again on students over growth. Chastened by regulatory efforts aimed at reshaping recruitment practices and holding institutions accountable for debt, coupled with lawsuits and investigations against the worst behaviors, many companies have had to reduce enrollment, offer trial periods, and freeze or lower tuition. This includes initiatives like the Kaplan Commitment, which lets students test out classes for three weeks without paying tuition. Or DeVry’s Fixed Tuition Promise, which guarantees costs will not go up as long as students stay enrolled and came one year after a tuition freeze. Hopefully, these changes will result in better outcomes for students.
But short-term improvement is not enough. The last 15 years has shown just how Wall Street can trump old values and prompt reckless behavior if their ambitions and actions are left unchecked. Without a stronger accountability structure around them, there’s no promise that growth at all costs will not return.
Ben Miller is senior policy analyst for the New America Foundation's Education Policy Program.
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