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The University of Phoenix: Screwing America Over One Student at a Time

By Dustin Rowles | Film | July 21, 2010 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | July 21, 2010 |

A college education is the new mortgage crisis, and those for-profit colleges are the new sub-prime mortgages. The only difference is, taking out a loan you can’t pay back for an education from one of those for-profit “institutions” like the University of Phoenix is like paying too much for a dilapidated house you’ll never be able to live in.

Here’s an unsettling fact: Around 44 percent of students who take out federal loans to attend a for-profit college default on those loans. Moreover, at a place like University of Phoenix, around 86 percent of their money comes from federal loans. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that if you add two plus two, it’s the American taxpayers who are feeling the backdoor, non-lubricated, capillary-bursting ass pillaging.

I’m not being an elitist douchebag about those for-profit institutions, either. Before I watched the Frontline documentary, College, Inc. (now available on Netflix Instant), I had no idea that much of that education — the majority of which is received online — was often worthless, what with nursing students doing their pediatrics training at day cares and much of their other training in nursing homes. When people suggest they pay $100,000 for a piece of paper, that’s almost literally true with for-profit institutions, which lack even a whiff of intellectual rigor, and as much is conceded by a former director of the U of P, who says that working-class folk just don’t have time for that kind of education.

Sadly, it’s not a case where you pay for what you get, either. For-profit colleges, in general, cost three to four more times than a community college and twice as much as a traditional college. And yet, at the University of Phoenix alone, there are half a million students enrolled, or as many people as enrolled in the entire University of California system plus all the Ivy League schools combined.

Worse still, a large percentage of the students who do attend these for-profit colleges shouldn’t be in college in the first place. Colleges have admission standards for a reason, but in these institutions, it’s not often about being selected to attend, it’s about being recruited by high-pressure telemarketers who are under orders to make 3 to 400 sales calls a day. Sales calls for University students. The for-profit education system at work, folks. How many of those people, who pay for their tuition through federal loans, actually follow through on even the easiest of online training?

But that’s what happens when a person’s education is turned over to Wall Street and a few savvy investors who make millions bilking not just students who will live in perpetual debt, but the taxpayers who ultimately pay for those defaults. And it’s probably no huge surprise to learn that a guy like Michael Clifford is behind many of those colleges. He didn’t attend college himself; in fact, he was a coked-out musician until he found God. Suddenly, he was a born-again applying some of the same business principles applied to those huge Mega McChurches: It’s not about quality. It’s about volume. And when the average cost of an education at a place like the University of Phoenix is $31,000 a year and there are no real facilities other than a warehouse to store the computer servers, the profit margin is high.

And that’s the focus of College, Inc., a fascinating documentary exploration of an industry I didn’t even realize was an industry. It is, and it has a very powerful lobbying group behind it, one that doesn’t want the government meddling with their lax standards. The feeling is somewhat mutual: President Obama promised that we’d lead the world in college degrees in 2020, and with even community colleges turning away thousands of people because their classes are filled. it’s the underprivileged working class just trying to improve their goddamn lots that are taken advantage of. But the government is hamstrung by its own promises: If it steps in, then that’s fewer college degrees handed out each year. Even if many of those degrees are barely worth the paper they’re printed on.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.