The college version of the subprime mortage mess

May 27, 2010 | By | Reply More

Investor Steve Eisman whose huge wager against the subprime mortgage market was described by Michael Lewis The Big Short has launched an assault on fast growing for-profit college industry.   Here’s the link at Mother Jones. According to the Eisman, for-profit colleges “raked in almost one-quarter of the $89 billion in available Title IV loans and grants, despite having only 10 percent of the nation’s post-secondary students.”

Here is the main parallel between for-profit educators and the sub-prime lenders:

Eisman attributes the industry’s success to a Bush administration that stripped away regulations and increased the private sector’s access to public funds. “The government, the students, and the taxpayer bear all the risk and the for-profit industry reaps all the rewards,” Eisman said. “This is similar to the subprime mortgage sector in that the subprime originators bore far less risk than the investors in their mortgage paper.”

Here’s another similarity between subprime lending and for-profit education

Both push low-income Americans into something they can’t afford—in the schools’ case, pricey programs that leave the students heavily in debt; what’s more, the degrees they get mean little in the real world: “With billboards lining the poorest neighborhoods in America and recruiters trolling casinos and homeless shelters—and I mean that literally—the for-profits have become increasingly adept at pitching the dream of a better life and higher earnings to the most vulnerable.”

In the Mother Jones article, Eisman pointed to the self-reported (and thus potentially under-reported) 50-plus percent dropout rate at for profit colleges as further evidence that they offer poor-quality education.

After reading the above article, I referred to Wikipedia’s article one of the biggest for-profit colleges: Phoenix University, subsidiary of the publicly traded Apollo Group, Inc.  It offers “open enrollment,” meaning that it requires “proof of a high-school diploma, GED, or its equivalent.”  Phoenix graduates only 16% of its students, compared to the national average of 55%.  On the topic of de-regulation and quality of education, consider this:

The school was the top recipient of student financial aid funds for the 2008 fiscal year, receiving nearly $2.48 billion for students enrolled. In 2006, due largely to the efforts attributed to the Apollo group, the 50-percent rule (requiring colleges and universities to conduct at least half of its instruction in person in order to receive federal aid or collect federal student loans) was modified. It no longer classifies students receiving instruction through telecommunications methods as correspondence students.

The Wikipedia article offers a lot more information to feed the fires of my suspicion.   I don’t claim to know any more about Phoenix University than what I have read in these two articles.  What I do bring to the table is that I investigated diploma mills as part of my job while I worked as an Assistant Attorney General for the state of Missouri; I don’t like the smell of what I’m reading about these for-profit colleges.

Based on what Michael Eisman has stated, it would seem to be a good idea for the federal government to tighten its standards for the types of post-secondary schools eligible for federal loans, and to take a much closer look at the quality of education received by the typical Phoenix University student.  Is it really worthy of a federal loan guarantee?

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Category: Education, Fraud, snake oil

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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