For-profit schools questioned by Congress

A graduation cap with money symbolizes student loans


Kai Ryssdal: For-profit colleges got a grilling from lawmakers today on Capitol Hill. Those kinds of schools get more than 90 percent of their revenue from the government, which is to say you and me, in the form of tuition paid by federal student loans and grants. Students are piling up huge debts for for-profit degrees that sometimes don't pay off, and there's worry in Congress that tax payers aren't getting their money's worth.

Janet Babin reports from North Carolina Public Radio.

Janet Babin: Enrollment in for-profit universities jumped a staggering 225 percent over the past 10 years. And virtually all of those students rely on federal grants and loans to help pay their tuition. That costs the government billion of dollars a year. But almost half of those students can't pay their loans back.

Sen. Tom Harkin says the schools get their money, but taxpayers get the tuition bill, and the students are saddled with debt.

Sen. Tom Harkin: That debt is not dischargeable in bankruptcy, it will follow them until the day they die. But the for-profit schools get the benefits.

For-profit colleges argue that in an unsteady economy, they've become a rock for students that many traditional universities turn away.

Harris Miller is with the Career College Association, a group that represents for-profit colleges.

HARRIS MILLER: Our students are graduating in high numbers, particularly if you compare them to other schools that accept at-risk students.

That's not the experience Yazmeen Esa had. She trained to be an ultrasound stenographer at the Sanford-Brown Institute in White Plains, N.Y.

Yazmeen Esa: Five months after finishing the program, I had no prospects for employment, but still had a family to take care of, rent, bills and now the outstanding student loans.

With the job market still very tight, more people like Yazmeen will be looking to boost their career skills. Many of them will end up at for-profit colleges.

The Senate plans a second hearing on the issue next month.

I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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There is no such thing as an 'ultrasound stenographer.' Though it is a profession, and thus it is best to avoid the 'technician' title, a 'sonographer' is also known as an 'ultrasound tech', and performs diagnostic medical ultrasound examinations, i.e. takes pictures of internal organs for diagnostic purposes. I am a cardiac sonographer, so I perform exams to diagnose a wide variety of heart conditions. There is no 't' in 'sonographer', and the profession has nothing to do with a steno pad or taking dictations. And while I have heard this error countless times from non-medical people over the years, I was shocked to hear this error on Marketplace. And even without the extraneous 't', 'Ultrasound sonographer' is a redundant title, because ultrasound and sonography are synonyms.

Why do for-profit schools keep getting blamed for problems that afflict the whole system, and if anything are far worse at nonprofit and public schools? And it's the wide availability of federal grants and loans that is at least a substantially contributing cause of this mess. Just like in every other area that economics can talk about, if you're spending someone else's money, even if you'll foot the bill later, the price you pay tends to go up. And in education, up and up and up.

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