Poor public policies send desperate people to dubious colleges

Published in The News Tribune, March 14, 2012

In my last column I argued that the life line we’re throwing to those at the bottom rungs of society is increasingly beyond their grasp. Truth is, we also don’t provide them with many chances to rise up.  With neither a hand out nor a hand up, too many citizens are consigned to pretty dim life prospects.

What’s more, other efforts taken to assist them have been akin to the actions taken by Captain Renault in the movie Casablanca.  The Captain famously responded to a shooting of a Nazi by a known assailant with the unforgettable instructions to “round up the usual suspects.”  Renault hoped that the appearance of vigilance would protect him from his evil superiors, and we all hope he was right.

When confronted with most problems, however, simply putting on a show has little to recommend it.  Yet this appears to be the Obama Administration’s approach to some aspects of social policy.  Like Captain Renault, the current administration has made a show of pursuing justice on behalf of low-income citizens by rounding up the wrong suspects — as when it announced its investigation into the for-profit college sector.

You’ve seen these colleges.  Seemingly overnight they’ve sprung up in places like Tacoma, Poulsbo, Bremerton and Vancouver, their enrollments skyrocketing right along with their receipt of billions upon billions of federal grant and loan dollars.

The Administration charged that such institutions prey on trusting adults by charging them a lot for…well, not much. To attract students, it’s said they promise too much and deliver too little, their unsuspecting students dropping out or graduating with too little in the way of marketable skills and too much in the way of personal debt.

The Congressional hearings and government reports that followed these allegations indicated a government crackdown was imminent.  But industry lobbyists mounted a successful counterattack that kept federal regulatory forces at bay, and kept the stream of federal dollars that guarantee industry profits flowing.

News outlets such as the New York Times and The News Tribune (2-12) have closely followed this story.  Yet their coverage ignores the story’s true culprit.

Consider both who it is who attends for-profit colleges and why.

For-profit institutions disproportionately enroll low-income citizens, almost all of whom seek some credential providing them a leg-up in the otherwise dead-end job market.  Their students typically receive twice as much in need-based federal grants as do students in the non-profit sector, which indicates how different are the populations served by each.

While many of us mourn the loss of taxpayer dollars to higher education, the public has not abandoned a commitment to investing in college students.  On average in Washington we spend $6,000 per year on each of the 250,000 residents enrolled in our public colleges.

But these public institutions don’t serve everyone.  Many young adults search for ways to acquire new skills and employment possibilities without going through the traditional college route.  Some lack the requisite academic skills college requires, and others simply lack an interest in acquiring more of them.

But some time ago we abandoned public programs that invested in them, today spending a small fraction of what we used to and what other rich countries still spend on job-training and career programs.

Not surprising, many ambitious – or desperate — adults with obsolete, inadequate, or simply never-acquired skills have turned to for-profit institutions that serve this rapidly growing population.

Without a doubt some for-profits prey on such desperation.  But targeting institutions that cater to low-income citizens with bleak job prospects, all while we’ve largely abandoned public  programs that used to serve them, smacks to me of shooting the messenger.

While for-profit institutions are not without guilt, the real culprit here lies with our public policies that leave many desperate citizens caught without the skills necessary for an adequate living and with little recourse other than the for-profit colleges – colleges that instead we’ve been “rounding up.”

Long-standing complacency over public policies that leave countless poorly-educated citizens exposed to a bleak future is one that comes with personal tragedies as well as large fiscal and social costs.  I’ll turn to these in a final column on this topic.

Clarification:  My last column stated that the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that the richest Americans collect the most in social benefits.  To be clear, I reached this conclusion after combining its data on traditional social spending and spending done through the tax system.