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Omdahl: Online for-profit colleges questionable

By Staff | Jun 13, 2014

As a faculty member who spent over 25 years teaching in a university, I have been somewhat skeptical about the rosy promises being made by online for-profit universities and colleges. I am not alone.

Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway has rallied 32 states to participate in a sweeping investigation of online for-profit programs. (North Dakota is not one of the states involved.)

Last January, 13 states issued subpoenas, accusing for-profit programs of misrepresenting student financing, recruitment practices and graduate employment records.

Last week, the deadline passed for submitting comments on regulations for online for-profit programs proposed by the federal government. Naturally, the freewheeling for-profits warned that dire consequences will follow.

To justify the new regulations, the U. S. Department of Education pointed out that 72 percent of the for-profit programs produced graduates that earned less, on average, than high school dropouts. This has caused great concern about repayment of student loans.

Student loans are big in the for-profit world. Only 13 percent of college students are enrolled in for-profit programs, yet they receive over 30 percent of all student loans and account for nearly half of all loan defaults.

Under the new regulations, the Department of Education will require for-profit programs to report publicly the cost of attendance, the student default rates and the number of students completing their fields of study.

In addition, the new rules will also require these schools to calculate the likelihood of annual incomes sufficient to pay off the student loans. In other words, will jobs enable graduates to pay off their loans?

The Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities has been fighting regulation for years. It engaged economists who concluded that the new regulations would harm 7.5 million lower income students over the next 10 years.

This figure assumes that the for-profit institutions would not supply the kind of information being requested. Or perhaps their concern is the requirement that their graduates find jobs that will make it possible to repay loans.

If that is the case, their arguments are incriminating. They constitute a confession that many of the for-profit programs are turning out graduates who will not be very employable so such calculations will discourage enrollment.

Now, to a lesser extent, North Dakota universities are doing the same thing by offering majors in fields with low employment possibilities. However, the repayment record of our graduates is much better, nothing like the 50 percent in the for-profit programs.

To a classroom instructor, it looks like students in the clutches of the for-profit programs are trading content for convenience, serious study for short-cuts. They are led to believe that there is a quick and easy way to get smart.

So how does all of this relate to North Dakota?

First, we have students being seduced by for-profits and headed for a questionable future. They deserve a word of caution. It seems to me that the Board of Higher Education or the Attorney General ought to be warning prospective students.

Second, North Dakota taxpayers are entitled to accountability in the federal financing of a student loan program that is being abused.

Third, as a nation we cannot afford to have limited education resources diverted when our young people are expected to compete in a world economy.

We are now engaged in a discussion over the Common Core reformation proposed for K-12 by governors and state superintendents of public instruction. It seems that we should be equally concerned about academic quality at the college level.

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