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NY Times Columnist Makes Case for For-Profit Colleges

Private-sector education has drawn a lot of criticism recently, but in September 2011 a columnist for ''The New York Times'' made a case that for-profit schools are actually a good option. Can for-profit education's critics and supporters find a middle ground?

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By Sarah Wright

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For-Profit Controversy

If you pay attention to education news, you're probably aware that for-profit education currently faces strong criticism. Many students graduating from for-profit colleges, which typically offer 2-year career prep programs, complain of high debt and low success in the job market. These schools have also been criticized for their recruitment techniques, with one for-profit education company, Education Management Corporation (EMC), being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for lying to prospective students in order to make a profit.

Like other for-profit education companies, EMC caters to low-income students who qualify for - and rely on - federal student aid like Pell Grants to fund their education. According to Joe Nocera, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, for-profit schools use this federal income for as much as 90% of their profits. Under this business model, more students on aid equals more profit, creating a system wherein low-income students are necessary for financial success. This has led to some skewed proportions: according to Nocera for-profit colleges only enroll about 12% of the nation's postsecondary students, but about 25% of the nation's financial aid resources are directed toward these schools.

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Nocera's Defense

But though these education companies have come under heavy fire, Nocera recently wrote a column in support of the for-profit industry. His piece opens with an assessment of the controversy and problems surrounding for-profit education, but he goes on to make a case for the positive aspects of this type of education, aspects that are often overshadowed by criticism that he characterizes as 'overblown.' Nocera notes that defenders of for-profit education want the non-traditional students served by these schools to have a fair shot at getting an education that can help them succeed in a difficult job market.

In his column, Nocera points out that 'a college education has never been more necessary for a decent life in America.' But it's not so easy for lower-income folks to get that education. Citing crowded community colleges and expensive public universities, the columnist calls for-profit schools 'the most capable of meeting the country's growing education needs.' For-profits are already set up to handle low-income students, especially those with jobs, who are considered 'non-traditional' in other education sectors.

A Good Option

Critics of for-profit education seem to feel that the best solution for the industry's problems is to do away with it entirely, Nocera notes. In the column, he points to people like financier Steve Eisman, who called the industry 'socially destructive and morally bankrupt.' That's hardly a hearty endorsement for reform over abolishment.

Though unpopular, Nocera's suggestion that for-profit education serves a specific and necessary purpose is a reasonable one. There are, of course, significant problems with the for-profit education industry, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a workable private-sector solution to the problems facing lower-income U.S. citizens who want to better their situation. In order to find the right balance, though, critics and supporters alike will need to approach the problem with temperance and reason.

Other changes on the higher education landscape include the privitazation of public universities.

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