Scam schools close. If only more would.

“There’s always Phoenix,” replied the professor in a sociology research methods class I took years ago, when I challenged the notorious studies conducted by psychology professors using introductory psychology students. These studies make a mockery of the informed consent requirement that institutional review boards are supposed to enforce.

My professor knew I’d recognize her response as a false dichotomy. It was her way of answering me without blatantly conceding that I was right. As I think back on what I observed of her, I’m pretty sure she was an adjunct, which is to say her situation was tenuous, and that she needed to try not to offend the powers that be in that university. (And yes, apparently, the University of Phoenix does teach psychology.)

“As outsiders we don’t know all the facts, but we do know that Corinthian schools educated thousands of students who had been underserved by traditional higher education institutions,” the Association for Private Sector Colleges and Universities said in a statement after Corinthian “announced on Sunday that it had ceased operations and would close all of its remaining 28 campuses as of Monday.”[1] As one who believes strongly in a liberal education, I’m extremely skeptical that these students indeed “had been underserved by traditional higher education institutions.” What’s more likely is that these students had been duped:

One huge penalty looming over the company came earlier this month, when the Education Department notified Corinthian that it intended to impose a $29.7 million fine on the company’s Heald College system, accusing it of misrepresenting job-placement rates to current and prospective students. Corinthian said at the time that the allegations were based on flawed analysis and that it planned “to contest everything.”

The State of California has also taken several regulatory and legal actions affecting the company. The state’s attorney general, Kamala D. Harris, filed a lawsuit last fall accusing Corinthian and its subsidiary colleges in California of “false and predatory advertising, intentional misrepresentations to students, securities fraud, and unlawful use of military seals in advertisements.”

And just last week, a state consumer-affairs bureau issued an emergency decision that ordered Corinthian’s Everest and WyoTech locations in California to cease enrolling new students as of Friday.[2]

For-profit colleges have had a terrible reputation for about as long as I can remember. More than one person has said “their degrees aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.”

The scam with job placement is particularly egregious. These schools all but promise that if you complete their program, they will find you a job:

For-profit schools — ranging from monolithic online chains like the University of Phoenix to smaller, fly-by-night operations that advertise on the subway — enroll about 12 percent of college students nationally. Yet they account for nearly four times that share of student-loan defaults, according to newly released [as of September 2014] federal data.

The typical explanation for the high default rates involves the fact that so few students actually graduate. Many end up with substantial debt but not the credential required to help them get a job — you know, the thing they explicitly went into debt for.

For example, at the University of Phoenix location that boasts the system’s highest degree completion rate, only about a quarter of students who enter seeking a bachelor’s degree ultimately complete one within six years. Among students who attend the University of Phoenix’s online “campus” only, the six-year completion rate is a measly 4 percent.

But it turns out that dropout rates aren’t the only reason this sector’s default rates are so high. The lucky few students who actually complete their degrees have serious trouble getting jobs, too. Employers, it seems, just aren’t that interested in graduates of for-profits, even when those graduates are otherwise indistinguishable from those of public colleges and univerisities [sic].[3]

No shit, Sherlock. But I’m seeing a larger pattern at work. First, you tell working class and poor kids that they shouldn’t go to a traditional community college or university because they’ll have to take way too many classes to fulfill general education requirements. You tell them these classes are “irrelevant.” So they go to a for-profit institution instead. Where they fail. And even if they don’t fail, they’ll often fail to get a job.

So now these kids learn that not just some but all institutions are a waste of time and money. Which suits the powers that be just fine. I’m only extrapolating a little bit when I quote from Jonathan Kozol in his chapter on San Antonio K-12 schools:

A lot of wealthy folks in Texas think the schools are doing a sufficiently good job if the kids of poor folks learn enough to cast a vote—just not enough to cast it in their own self-interest. They might think it fine if kids could write and speak—just not enough to speak in ways that make a dent in public policy. In economic terms, a lot of folks in Alamo Heights would think that Edgewood kids were educated fine if they had all the necessary skills to do their kitchen work and tend their lawns.[4]

Higher education, of course, is only a greater threat to the status quo than K-12. So whether or not by design, when the message gets out that higher education is a scam, it virtually guarantees that kids will be deterred from getting a liberal education that poses the very threats that Kozol identifies. And in our intensely anti-intellectual society, it further bruises academia’s reputation.

“Finally, we see the end of this rotten company,” Senator [Dick] Durbin said in a statement issued Sunday, “but there are still thousands of students who may never see the end of the damage Corinthian has caused if the Department of Education doesn’t move quickly to provide some relief.”[5]

Well, yes. But frankly, I’m more concerned about the attitude we’re fostering towards education in general.

  1. [1]Charles Huckabee, “Corinthian Colleges Inc. to Close Its Remaining Campuses,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 27, 2015,
  2. [2]Charles Huckabee, “Corinthian Colleges Inc. to Close Its Remaining Campuses,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 27, 2015,
  3. [3]Catherine Rampell, “The investment in for-profit colleges isn’t paying off,” Washington Post, September 25, 2014,
  4. [4]Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (New York: HarperPerennial, 1991), 216.
  5. [5]Charles Huckabee, “Corinthian Colleges Inc. to Close Its Remaining Campuses,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 27, 2015,

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