College is just a word

Last week I pointed to the fact there seem to be a set of private educational institutions whose raison d'être is to feed at the trough of government-backed student loans. Mark Gimein has a follow-up at The Big Money. Here are some bits about the "college" which was sued by the graduate who couldn't get a job:

Trina Thompson's alma mater, Monroe College, is well-known to New York City commuters, thanks to glossy ads that festoon the insides (and sometimes the outside) of many subway cars. It has less of a presence, however, outside the New York public transit system. You will not find it in, say, the U.S. News list of 1,400 colleges. You will not find its average SAT scores listed on its Web site or anywhere else (they're not required for admission), nor will you find lists of publications by the scholars on its faculty.

...Though it is called a "college" and offers bachelor's and even master's degrees, Monroe does not offer degrees in the kinds of areas-say, English, economics, or the natural sciences-that most people associate with "college." Instead, it offers degrees in business administration, criminal justice, and medical assistance. It has a hospitality management program with for-credit classes in artisan bread baking and the workings of a hotel front desk. Meanwhile, Monroe's math offerings stop at the calculus level of a decent high school.


For the education it offers, Monroe charges tuition of $5,872 a semester (including a $400 "administrative fee"). For comparison, the City University of New York, whose Lehman College campus is not far from Monroe and offers the range of academic programs in the arts and sciences that most people expect of a college, charges $2,300 for in-state students; the local community colleges cost less. The education that Monroe offers is geared toward what is ostensibly valuable in the work world. Trina Thompson told me that her courses included classes in Word, Excel, and Web design; in the course catalog, you'll find even more basic offerings, including a college credit course in "keyboarding."

...At Binghamton University, the flagship campus of New York's public system, 1.5 percent of students default on their loans. At Lehman, a school with average SAT math plus verbal scores around 870 (well below the national average for college freshman), the number is 3.2 percent.

At Monroe the numbers are much worse. Of the students who were to start repaying their loans in 2006, 9.5 percent are already in default. That's three times higher than at nearby Lehman and 80 percent higher than the national average of 5.2% (a number that is itself elevated by the dismal record of for-profit schools like Monroe).

I focus on the issue of student loans in my posts because of complexities of moral culpability here. Many student loans are subsidized, which probably has an inflationary effect on the cost of tuition, so at more expensive universities many take out unsubsidized loans to make up the balance. Additionally, student loans can not be discharged in bankruptcy excluding extreme hardship cases. This a case where public policy is oriented in a very specific direction so as to incentivize attainment of undergraduate degrees.

The problem is that a non-trivial set of students seek the college degree because it has been transformed into the new high school diploma. And many of these students intersect with near-scams like Monroe college.

Part of the issue is that there isn't much discussion about the reality that a bachelor's degree as a label doesn't magically turn one into an engine of economic productivity in and of itself. College is supposed to broaden your horizons and allow you to think (liberal arts), or, it can give you very specialized pre-professional education (e.g., engineering degrees). But that's not how it's working out for many people, which means that the signalling value of a college education is rapidly decreasing as more mediocre students get funneled into lowest-common-denominator degree-mills. All the while, the cost of higher education is still outpacing inflation.


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These 2-year (mostly), for profit, "technical" schools have grown like a bunch of weeds in the last few years. Many were probably destined to die as private lenders were leaving the student loan market. But the federal government is going to give them a boost by expanding Pell grants to more schools. These schools are about as far as you can get from what a Pell grant is supposed to give low income students: a quality education.

Bah. What's so terrible about kids learning some saleable skills? No more than one in ten persons is cut out to be a world-historical philosopher after all - yes, one in ten, if even as many as that. More power to the other nine for correctly accounting themselves bookkeepers and workers.

"For profit?" I'm deeply scandalized. Every little thing /I/ do is for a loss. But we all show warts at one hour or another, and for now I can forgive these institutions theirs - though I'll still look forward to the time when they are as clean of this mercenary stain as North Korea is today.

By Eric Johnson (not verified) on 13 Aug 2009 #permalink

The point is not that the college is "for profit", the point is that it is (maybe) providing a channel for student loans to be used as low-hassle welfare for people who aren't sure what to do in order to make themselves successful/saleable. I think there are far worse examples (notably "technical" colleges which allow students to start at any time rather than on a semester schedule, and are largely self-study computer/desk spaces, thus ensuring the first check arrives as soon as possible for both student and "college").

By Joe Whitney (not verified) on 14 Aug 2009 #permalink

Fair enough - there's definitely a point there. But as long as the students have some cash in the game, I wouldn't expect things to wind up too crooked, because the student has some incentive to seek a square deal.

Meanwhile, as a grouchy Mencken-style old-right libertarian, I don't necessarily contemplate "real" college with far warmer feelings. To my mind, it notably inculcates anti-Westernism.

By Eric Johnson (not verified) on 14 Aug 2009 #permalink