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Television review: ‘College Inc.’ on ‘Frontline’

Let’s hear it for " Frontline,” which continues to take on topics for no earthly reason save they’re important.

In this week’s “College Inc.,” you won’t meet lovely coeds who are stripping to make tuition or nerdy con men amassing small fortunes through pre-fab thesis papers. No, it’s all those Universities of Phoenix, whose signs are becoming more ubiquitous than lap-band billboards, and their fellow for-profit colleges that the show’s indefatigable correspondent Martin Smith has in his sights.

Never before has a college education become so important to those who hope to enter the workforce and yet acquiring one has become increasingly expensive and logistically difficult. In this landscape of dwindling resources and increased need, the emergence of a new breed of education entrepreneur would appear to be the perfect solution. If the citizenry of the United States is unwilling or unable to fund colleges either through taxes or private endowments, then perhaps folks like former GE Chief Executive Jack Welch and former musician Michael Clifford can help by buying small struggling institutions and turning them into for-profit companies that have the capacity for seemingly endless growth.

The most successful for-profit college system, and the one that serves as model for most, is the University of Phoenix, founded in 1976 by John Sperling, an American with a doctorate in economics from Cambridge who was frustrated with the limitations of traditional academe. He created a network of freeway accessible colleges, now owned by the Apollo Group, that cater to adult students who want an education and may not be able to accommodate normal university hours. Many classes are at night, many do not follow the traditional academic year, and many are now taken online.

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To keep costs down, few for-profit colleges have traditional campuses (although some, like Grand Canyon College, do, though mainly to create a pleasing image for their many online students) and most employ teachers via short-term contracts rather than tenure.

That they are filling a need is evident by their success — the various Universities of Phoenix have almost half a million students enrolled and similar systems now crisscross the country. Wall Street could not be happier.

But whenever there is money to be made — and according to one former top executive of the University of Phoenix there is a lot of money to be made in for-profit colleges — there is the potential for abuse. Some for-profits have been charged with using pressure tactics and even fraud to boost enrollment, while others have been accused of not fulfilling their promises to provide the training and accreditation for students to enter their chosen fields. And in some cases, everything winds up costing almost twice as much, on average, as most community colleges.

Like homeowners underwater by a huge mortgage payment, some students at for-profits discover that high-interest educational loans and a depressed job market makes these almost impossible to pay. Smith interviews several for-profit alums who are drowning in debt. Meanwhile, though for-profit institutions serve only one-tenth of the college population they receive one-quarter of the country’s federal financial aid — which means, essentially, that’s our tax dollars at work for Wall Street.

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Smith faces down an unwieldy topic and creates a vivid portrait of a startling new kind of American education. One that has grown up along our highways, in our urban centers and on the Internet with weed-like speed and tenacity, and seemingly while no one was looking.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com


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