The Universal Notebook: Education for suckers

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Right after the paddy wagons finish hauling away the duplicitous malefactors at Standard & Poor’s (see last week’s column), they might want to begin rounding up the con artists who run the University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, and Education Management Corp.

If former Gov. John McKernan gets swept up in the raid it will be because, as chairman of the board of EDMC, he’s been selling sketchy educations to suckers and saddling them with loans they can’t afford.

Education is not a business and should not be run as a business. Any time you see the words “for-profit institution of higher education” you should beware. Personally, I’m offended that Kaplan University has a sign on the Maine Turnpike as though it were a real university that someone might actually be trying to find. But then the Maine Turnpike Authority is a pretty shifty outfit itself.

EDMC is in the news these days because the U.S. Department of Justice is suing it for fraud, alleging that its “colleges” – Art Institute, Argosy University, Brown Mackie College and South University – illegally paid recruiters to sign up students for $11 billion in loans between 2003 and 2011. The University of Phoenix paid a $78 million fine for similar practices. The former CEO of University of Phoenix is now the CEO of EDMC.

For-profit colleges essentially exist to attract state and federal student financial aid monies. If someone gets an education in the process, all to the good, but that’s a byproduct of the education loan scheme.

So what’s wrong with paying recruiters to sign students up for loans? Well, the bright boys at University of Phoenix actually went recruiting at homeless shelters. Want to turn your life around? Get an education. Can’t afford $10,000 to $20,000 a year? No problem, buckaroo, we’ve got a federal loan just for you.

The “colleges” get the loan money, the students get the debt. No wonder Goldman Sachs owns 41 percent of EDMC. It’s a money machine designed to quickly transfer taxpayer dollars to private pockets.

Questionable correspondence schools have been around for years. Draw the pirate. You can become an artist. EDMC actually started as an art correspondence school, but like for-profit education in general, it has now become a big business. But a degree from one of these online universities is about as valuable as ordination papers from the Church of Universal Life.

“Oh, Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, I see you both got your degrees from Argosy University.”

It’s easy to see in retrospect how Jock McKernan might have found himself on the slippery slope to online education. He started out as governor with a legitimate interest in raising the educational aspirations of Maine students. In order to make higher education attainable, you have to make it accessible. Inclusiveness replaces selectivity as the primary value. It’s just a hop, slip and a jump from there to providing loans to hundreds of thousands of unqualified students who may or may not be able to pay them back.

McKernan will no doubt survive the federal fraud charges. EDMC will simply pay a big fine to make them go away. With the mad hatters of the tea party already snapping at her high heels, however, you have to wonder whether the ever-popular Sen. Olympia Snowe will survive the revelation that she and her husband have become millionaires by virtue of tax dollars flowing their way.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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