Voluntary Standards for For-Profit Colleges Don’t Measure Up

Standards Must Address Serious Issues at For-Profit Schools

Last Tuesday the Coalition for Educational Success, an advocacy group representing several for-profit colleges, released a set of voluntary standards for responsible conduct to govern for-profit colleges. The standards require ethical recruitment practices and transparency on key pieces of information such as graduation rates, employment outcomes, and financial aid procedures.

Self-regulation is an admirable goal but it only works if the scope of the standards matches the scale of the problem they seek to address. In this case, the coalition’s standards do no more than tinker around the edges of the deep dysfunctions evident at some for-profit colleges.

The following chart reflects the percentage of students who enrolled at a four-year for-profit college in 2003 that had achieved any type of postsecondary credential within six years, by selected racial and ethnic groups.

certification after six years

Clearly there are significant challenges at these colleges. Less than 2 percent of African American women achieved a bachelor’s degree—and only 15 percent of them received any credential at all.

This chart illustrates the flip side—the percentage of students who begin at four-year for-profit institutions and have not attained a credential within six years:

certification after six years

In the best case—that of white males—just less than 50 percent of students have not achieved a postsecondary credential after six years. And a whopping 85 percent of African American women had nothing to show for their educational efforts after six years.

The data suggest deep problems in the for-profit sector. The problems are likely the result of a combination of failings, including high-pressure recruitment tactics, poor academic preparation, and curriculum and support services that do not provide an adequate opportunity to achieve a quality education.

The coalition’s standards will address only a tiny portion of these failings—the colleges’ recruitment and enrollment practices. And by emphasizing information disclosure without a concurrent focus on increasing quality, the standards promote the notion that it is the student’s responsibility to avoid poor-quality programs, not the colleges’ responsibility to provide good ones.

The for-profit college sector needs standards for responsible conduct. But to draft meaningful standards, the colleges must recognize the full extent of the issues in their sector. And they must take full responsibility for their role in creating these problems.

Julie Margetta Morgan is a Policy Analyst with the Postsecondary Education Program at the Center for American Progress.