When you stop and think, it’s unfair to the many writers at the New York Times who produce columns that don’t have an ideological edge, to tar them with the brush that is rightly applied to its overwhelmingly unfair and unbalanced editorial pages. Just because the most conspicuous part of a newspaper is terribly slanted is not a good reason to think badly of the rest of it. Guilt by association is always a bad, illogical practice.
What occasions that introduction is a recent New York Times piece by writer Eduardo Porter, “The Bane and the Boon of For-Profit Colleges.” Because many liberal politicians (most notably Iowa’s Tom Harkin) have had knives drawn against for-profit higher education, you might expect that the Times would take the same stance, but Porter’s article is not a hit piece at all.
He begins by interviewing Marc Jerome, vice president of Monroe College, which has two campuses in the New York area. The college is indeed a business, founded 80 years ago by Mr. Jerome’s grandfather. It is emphatically not a degree mill. Porter notes that more than 90 percent of recent graduates tracked by the school either continued their education or found employment. (Many well-known, non-profit colleges couldn’t match that record.)
What irritates Mr. Jerome is the way for-profits have been singled out for hostile political attack. Some certainly have scammed gullible students, but not his school. “Targeting only for-profit institutions and exempting nonprofit institutions with poor outcomes is ultimately more harmful to the students the administration is seeking to protect,” he states. Clumsy federal regulations meant to solve one problem (the fact that many students who enroll in for-profit colleges don’t graduate and find “gainful employment”) are likely to have the unintended consequence of harming students who will be lured into non-profits that will be worse for them.
Porter’s piece doesn’t quite articulate the crucial point, although readers might find it between the lines: There is nothing necessarily bad about for-profit education, nor anything necessarily good about non-profit education. In both, the problem lies in the way we subsidize education.
Milton Friedman often said that when people spend their own money, they’re much more careful than when they spend someone else’s money. That’s just as true about education as anything else.
When students are mostly spending other people’s money through grants or seemingly benign government loans, they are far less careful about getting good value than if they were spending their own money. Schools offering good educational value for the dollar, like Monroe College evidently does, will do fine in a system without easy federal money. Degree mill scams, on the other hand, will wither and die, for-profit and nonprofit alike.
Porter has written a commendably fair and balanced piece. Some Times writers do that, just as some for-profit colleges are good educational institutions.