For-Profit Education from the Inside


    Twice in my life I have taken positions with for-profit companies that pretend to be educational institutions. Both times I desperately needed a job and got out as quickly as I could. So, I do feel that I can speak to the way far too many of these “schools” take advantage of their students, and also us taxpayers who provide the funds for educational loans their students take out.

    In my early twenties I was working as a technical editor in Connecticut when my company cut back on staff. After I exhausted my meager savings, I took an editorial job at a con operation then called “Famous Writers School” in Westport CT. The operation, founded by the late Bennett Cerf, was a correspondence school (the equivalent of online courses back then) for people that the school had convinced had “great” writing talent. When Jessica Mitford exposed the operation, 65,000 people were being taken advantage of. The whole thing smelled so bad to me that I quit after four weeks.

    In 1995 I took a job as an instructor at one of those places that tells students they can get a associate’s degree in 1.5 years. I left that job after one semester. The problems there were three-fold. The students were not screened to determine if they could do the course work. The jobs students were training for were fairly low-paying. The tuition was very high, so the company wanted students who could qualify for federal loans or federal retraining funding. At the time, I felt those same students would have been far better off attending community college.

    One example of the lousy economic return was the program that promised a degree as a practical nurse. There was one big catch to that promise.

    In the state of Virginia, anyone who wants to work as a practical nurse must pass a rigorous state exam to be licensed. The classes at the school didn’t prepare people to pass that test. Plus, the costs were high. Tuition, fees and books at the same for-profit school in 2011 total $24,800 per year. The school states that the nursing program takes 14 months to complete, but only 18% of students finish in that time.

    The same program at Virginia Western Community College costs $387.27 per class. Another big difference is that VWCC advertises that the program is a “restricted admissions program.” Translated, that means students are tested to see if they have the ability to handle the level of difficulty the program has. The for-profit business takes all comers into the program, whether they are capable of completing the program or not. In fact, they make lots more money if students drop out in frustration, cases where loan programs get stuck when money isn’t paid back.

    Virginia Western doesn’t just have a program in practical nursing. It also offers nursing aide, dental hygiene, radiography, and radiation oncology.  

    The saddest thing that for-profits do is they raise the expectations of some students who will never succeed in their “school.” They do have their success stories, but I cannot see why anyone would attend one of them instead of the local community college, where instructors have to meet minimum criteria and where students will be placed in programs where they are most likely to succeed, with those needing it receiving remedial education.

    If for-profit educational institutions want to burnish their lousy reputation, they could start by being more discriminating in the students they take into various programs, plus lower their tuition so that it is closer to their competitors, the community colleges. As it is, they rely on deceptive advertising and the availability of federal educational loans. After all, they’re not the ones left holding the bag if a student defaults.

    To sum up, for-profit schools have a very long way to go to make themselves reputable in my eyes.


    Sign up for the Blue Virginia weekly newsletter

    Previous articleSaving Money, Sustaining Jobs: What New Fuel Efficiency Rules Mean for Virginia
    Next articleVirginia News Headlines: Wednesday Morning