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For-profit isn't a model for community colleges

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April 17, 2012|By Daniel LaVista
  • Students sit in a classroom at Pasadena City College. A Times Op-Ed article on low graduation rates at community colleges recommends that the schools emulate some practices by for-profit institutions.
Students sit in a classroom at Pasadena City College. A Times Op-Ed article… (Los Angeles Times )

Mark Schneider and Lu Michelle Yin, proponents of for-profit higher education, go on the offensive in their April 11 Times Op-Ed article and criticize public community colleges for our graduation rates, which do need to improve. I have no quarrel with that fundamental truth.

However, I do take issue with those who advocate for for-profit colleges, which have been publicly exposed for their own inadequate graduation rates. I hate to use the old cliche about glass houses, but Schneider and Yin are clearly throwing stones, particularly at those of us in the California community college system.

As Schneider and Yin point out, for-profit colleges have come under much negative scrutiny in the last few years. But the authors' attempt to redirect it is not persuasive. Quite simply, it's important to consider the facts.

The authors note that graduation rates at two-year for-profit institutions are almost three times higher than those at public community colleges. They are not measuring equivalent programs. For example, some for-profit vocational programs may be completed in a far shorter time frame. Thus, a six-month automotive technology program at a for-profit college should not be compared to a 12-month program at a community college.

Additionally, students who transfer from community colleges to four-year universities would not be counted as graduating if they leave without an associate's degree, as many do.

Without question, community college graduation rates, on the whole, are too low. But Schneider and Yin say community colleges should emulate for-profit institutions; many of us in higher education disagree.

Community colleges remain the most affordable providers of higher education. Even with the recent student fee increases in California, the rates that community colleges charge are still many times lower than the fees at for-profit campuses, which average about $15,000 a year for associate degree programs. This compares to $1,400 annually for California’s community colleges.

Don't forget the enormous debt burden for-profit colleges can place on their largely low-income students, who often have difficulty obtaining jobs in their new fields once they graduate. Regrettably, the for-profit colleges, for some time, have had a federal student loan default rate that far exceeds the rates found in public and private nonprofits.

Schneider and Yin say making the improvements to community colleges they recommend will save taxpayers money and result in the tax revenue boost a more educated citizenry provides; that same fiscal scrutiny should be applied to for-profit schools.

Finally, according to a study by three Harvard professors, it’s important to note that 73% of for-profit colleges' revenue comes from federal financial aid; for some institutions, federal aid accounts for more than 80% of revenue.

Though for-profit institutions may be getting better at education delivery, they have a long way to go before they will gain the public's full confidence. Perhaps after increasing their own graduation levels, reducing their student loan default rates and meeting the federal government's new gainful-employment requirement, the for-profit sector's criticisms of other higher education programs will be leveled from a position of authority.

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Daniel LaVista is chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District.

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