The for-profit higher education sector is no stranger to scandal. In the 1980s and early '90s, it came to light that hundreds of fly-by-night schools had been set up solely to reap profits from the federal student loan programs, in part by preying on poor people and minorities. The most unscrupulous of them enrolled people straight off the welfare lines, and got them to sign up for the maximum amount of federal student loans available--sometimes without their knowledge or consent.
The rampant abuses caught the attention of the news media, sent shockwaves through Capitol Hill, and led to a year-long, high-profile Senate investigation led by Senator Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat. The standing-room-only hearings had all the trappings of scandal, with trade school officials pleading the Fifth and a school owner, who had been convicted of defrauding the government, brought to the witness table in handcuffs and leg irons.
Key lawmakers considered kicking all trade schools out of the federal student aid programs--a virtual death sentence given the institutions' heavy reliance on these funds. But Congress ultimately stepped back from the brink and instead strengthened the Department of Education's authority to weed out problem institutions. Under the new rules, for-profit colleges had to get at least 15 percent of their tuition money from sources other than federal loans and financial aid. Also, if more than a quarter of a school's students consistently defaulted on their loans within two years of graduating or dropping out, the school could be barred from participating in federal financial aid programs. The idea was to get rid of those schools that were set up solely to feed on federal funds and didn't provide the meaningful training students needed to get jobs and pay off their debt. As a result, during the 1990s more than 1,500 proprietary schools were either kicked out of the government's financial aid programs altogether or withdrew voluntarily. In an effort to rein in abusive recruiting tactics, in 1992 Congress also barred schools from compensating recruiters based on the number of students they brought in.
These changes shook up the industry. The old generation of trade schools gradually died off and were replaced by a new breed of for-profit colleges--mostly huge, publicly traded corporations. The largest, the Apollo Group, owns the University of Phoenix, which serves more than 400,000 students at some ninety campuses and 150 learning centers worldwide. Others include the Career Education Corporation, which serves 90,000 students at seventy-five campuses around the world, and Corinthian Colleges, which serves 69,000 students at more than 100 colleges in the United States and Canada.
Not only did these companies promise that their schools would be more responsive to the needs of students and employers than the previous generation, they also said they would be more accountable to the public because, as publicly traded companies, they were heavily regulated. "We've seen a fire across the prairie, and that fire has had a purifying effect," Omer Waddles, then the president of the Career College Association, told the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1997. "As our sector has weathered the storms of recent years, a stronger group of schools is emerging to carry, at a high level of credibility, the mantle of training and career development."
In reality, the new breed of schools had quite a bit in common with their predecessors; in some cases, they even operated out of the same buildings and employed the same personnel. What's more, rather than making them more accountable, the fact that they were publicly traded created a powerful incentive for them to game the system. After all, to keep their stock prices up and investors happy, the schools had to show that they were constantly expanding, which meant there was intense pressure to get students in the door and signed up for classes and financial aid.
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