What is Higher Education Worth?

I recently read that most Americans are unaware that state funding for public higher education has dried up. They think it’s increased, or stayed the same.

Of course, NEA Higher Ed members know this isn’t true. They have seen the effects of state cuts—$7 billion between 2008 and 2018—in the form of program eliminations, faculty and staff layoffs, a growing number of underpaid, adjunct faculty colleagues, and, most of all, student tuition bills that resemble our president’s ego.

Huge.

With National Higher Education Month on the horizon, I want to tell you what I think about the decline in support for public higher education. For me, the real story is why we are seeing this failure by state lawmakers and powerful people.

I believe it has a lot to do with this: From 2000 to 2010, the number of students enrolled in for-profit colleges—Corinthian, ITT, DeVry, and others that target veterans, first-generation students, and students of color with their billboard ads and well-oiled promises—grew 329 percent, from 403,000 to 1.7 million students. Today, for-profits enroll about 2.3 million students.

That is a lot of money passing hands—from U.S. taxpayers to the federal government to the students (who almost always borrow from the government, receive federal Pell Grants, or rely on GI Bill benefits to pay their tuition) to the deep-pocketed, anti-public education investors who run these for-profit institutions. The average annual tuition at a for-profit college was $25,000 in 2016, compared to $10,000 at a public two-year public institution. (Now that’s a good deal for students, and I promise you that our NEA Higher Ed members who work in community colleges are highly qualified, deeply caring educators.)

This is your money. Did you catch that? It funnels through these institutions and ends up in the pockets of people like Betsy DeVos, whose financial filings before her confirmation hearings showed her investments in firms with direct ties to for-profit colleges.

Is it any wonder that DeVos has taken every measure to make it easier for for-profit colleges to fleece their students and reward their investors? Even as fraud claims against for-profit colleges account for 98 percent of all fraud claims filed against all colleges, and even as some of the biggest operators have folded, leaving thousands of devastated students, DeVos has rolled back federal regulations that protect students from borrowing tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars, for worthless degrees.

Assuming they get degrees, and many don’t.

This is all about money. It’s about the corporatization and privatization of higher education. It’s about making sure the rich get richer on the backs of American veterans and immigrants who think they’re going to break out of poverty and lift up their families by getting a college degree and a decent job but instead end up in a bigger hole of debt. My heart breaks for those students—they don’t know the system has been rigged by billionaires like DeVos.

They believe the bus ads.

It’s not just DeVos. As for-profit colleges raked in federal funds, they grew their political power through political contributions. It’s been a few years since USA Today revealed the “dramatic upsurge” in campaign contributions from for-profit colleges to former U.S. Rep. John Kline (R-MN), former chair of the House education committee. In just three months, from May to June 2016, Kline raised nearly $140,000 from for-profit colleges. That July, in a big no-surprise, his bill to protect for-profit colleges’ access to federal funds sailed through the committee. (Of course Kline isn’t the only one — his successor in the chair’s seat, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-VA), also has received tens of thousands of dollars.)

State lawmakers have benefited, too. For example, former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s political action committee raked in cash from the Apollo Group, the political action committee of the for-profit University of Phoenix. In another no-surprise, Arizona saw the largest cuts in the nation to public higher education between 2008 and 2018—a whopping 56 percent. Meanwhile, tuition at its public universities rose nearly $5,000 a year.

See, that’s what happens when you cut funding. Colleges still need to keep the lights on, so they transfer their operational costs to students. When funding goes down, tuition goes up. And eventually, for-profit colleges don’t seem like such a bad deal.

I’m convinced that there is a design at work. It’s a design that aims to separate Americans into two classes of students. There are the students with means and money, the children of the wealthy and powerful, who will continue to get an excellent (and expensive) higher education at the most elite colleges and universities in the nation.

And then, there are the rest of us. As public education is drained of resources, we’ll be left with these shell institutions that look like colleges on the outside, but deliver debt and disappointment on the inside.

Donald Trump is a big fan of for-profit colleges. He gave them the gift of Betsy DeVos in the position of Secretary of Education knowing that she would protect them over students. These for-profits are getting their money’s worth. But they are not what democracy looks like. We are. The people who put students over profits are all-in in this next election.

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