By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – “Mike” said he was sitting on his sitting on his parents’ porch when a salesman with a briefcase spotted him and came up on the stoop. “Say,” the man asked, “Would you like to learn how to operate a bulldozer?”
Mike was 18. Most of the men in his immediate and extended family had jobs where they became familiar with the handle end of shovels and mops. He said he nodded to the man, thinking he’d try something better, then signed a form.
Mike forgot all about that day until about five years later when fresh out of the military, married and ready to start a civilian job, he found out he couldn’t buy a car to get him to work. Why? He learned he’d defaulted on a “student loan.”
The man with the briefcase was a scammer, a front man. He had used Mike’s name and the address (from which Mike’s family had moved shortly after the encounter) to obtain “tuition money” for commercial college courses that were never offered.
Indeed, it took Mike months to piece together what had happened. So rather than being well-positioned to launch a good (if not opulent) life, Mike’s lousy credit resulted in vanished opportunities.
Mike – clearly a bright guy – told me the story, then went back to his sweeping.
An important disclaimer is that I am employed by a public, nonprofit university. Around here, commercial, for-profit “schools” are loathed. But it’s not because they drain enrollment. Ole Miss is seeing record increases. It’s because so many commercial colleges are misleading and treacherous.
And here’s the bottom line: Most of them – at least the truly crooked ones – would vanish overnight if members of Congress had an ounce of gumption or truly cared about the “Mikes” of Mississippi and elsewhere in America. These schools are rackets that depend on people obtaining federal grants or taxpayer-guaranteed loans. The default rates by their “students” are astronomical.
Of course, there’s no doubt for-profit schools have success stories just as there are stories of failure by nonprofit private and public colleges and universities to deliver what they promise.
We’re not talking absolutes. We’re talking about the big picture. And we’re talking about decades during which members of Congress have loved claiming to be “pro-education” by propping up bogus, mail-order schools when all they’re really doing is propping up the profits of professional bandits while being wined and dined on the yachts of their owners.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is one person the for-profit college lobbyists and campaign donors have failed to reach. He has held hearing after hearing exposing the fact that many aid-eligible operations do little or nothing for actual students. Yet because most citizens don’t look past the surface of situations, the thievery blossoms. And, as Harkin noted, stock values of for-profit schools soared after “tighter” federal regulations were announced in recent weeks. Why? Because the reality is new rules purchased in Washington, D.C., open the door to the public’s pockets even wider.
Harkin’s hearings included the story of a Minnesota man. He’d “attended” law school for years via correspondence and computer courses, borrowing about $60,000 for “tuition.” After his faithful work, he contacted state officials to take the licensing test for attorneys. It was only then that he learned that Minnesota, like Mississippi and all other states, requires a degree from an accredited program for bar exam eligibility. Same for nurses, doctors, engineers, accountants, real estate professionals and in many, many other career areas. Few, if any, for-profit colleges are accredited.
Mississippi is fortunate to have a wonderful array of community college campuses and workforce training programs. People can learn all sorts of skills – cosmetology, diesel mechanics, food service and heavy equipment operation – at these schools. There are also eight public and an impressive array of private colleges and universities.
It is true that there may be niches where private, for-profit educational operations can be helpful to people. But here’s the deal: Voters need to realize – and to demand that members of Congress admit – that where some people see government aid and entitlement programs as helpful and uplifting for society, the notion of “free money” brings out the Jessie James in others.
Just as there are countless Medicaid and Medicare “health-care providers” that are shells, existing only to tap easy government money, there are many “education providers” exploiting the poor. They’re hurtful, not helpful.
It’s inconsistent to say we care about poor folks and allow this abuse to continue.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.