The Rhetoric of Student Debt

Higher Education as a business is an American idea, mostly! The American For-Profit Education companies are the largest in the world, and they are no longer American. They have assets - universities, publishing companies, online operations - all over the world. And, they are present in every conversation about Higher Ed in every country, lobbying for For-Profit participation (which many countries do not allow) and privileges (mostly access to public funding for students). How this should be viewed depends on one's point of view, and I did previously argue that some diversity is good for Higher Education sectors in different countries (though my views have evolved since, as I came across Hirschman's argument why private sector education, instead of improving the quality of public sector through competition, actually has the opposite effect).

But, regardless of the broader argument, one thing fascinates me about this debate: That American For-Profits point to the student debt crisis in America, and argue that allowing For-Profits would increase efficiency of operations in Higher Education sector, lower the cost, enhance employability and therefore, make Higher Education funding sustainable. In fact, this is their main argument for the expansion of the For Profit sector in other regions, like Africa and Western Europe, the two growth regions for For-Profit Higher Ed.

The problem is that the student debt crisis in America, in a large part, is a For-Profit problem. The For-Profits neither had any measurable effect on efficiency of operations nor on employability, but a very substantial and proven effect on raising fees, failing to provide employment after graduation and student loan defaults. In fact, some of the large For-Profit firms brought the whole system near collapse, by filing for Chapter 11 without meeting its obligations to students. The point is, of course, that this has not been closely followed in other countries, despite the global reach of these same companies. The government ministers continued to be entertained by these very wealthy firms, and they continued to lure students with slick advertising everywhere: Their failings in the United States were kept off the Press.

That may change now. The 2016 Presidential Race has been odd for many reasons, and there will be one more now: It would bring For-Profit dealings into focus. No doubt, Hillary Clinton would want to hit Trump where it hurts: His misadventure with the now-infamous Trump U! But, Trump also has some pretty damaging things to hurl back at her too: That Bill Clinton continued to pocket millions from Laureate International, as their Honorary Chancellor, through a shell fund, when the company, through its Walden University, got $55 million from the State Department when Hillary was the Secretary. Bill Clinton resigned from the position after the scandal got highlighted in Clinton Cash, an expose, but Walden University is indeed one of the largest recipient of the Federal funding and all eyes would be on its operations now.

One may say that these two cases are different and the nature of involvements are different. My point is only to note that For-Profit operations may now be an issue of Presidential campaigns and this is good. For-Profit Higher Ed, which was hugely profitable until their practises caught up with them at the aftermath of the recession, is currently searching for opportunities globally. Its operations need greater scrutiny, which it evades. Hopefully, that will now change.


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