In a famous scene from the 1975 movie Jaws Police Chief Brody (played by Roy Scheider) sees for the first time the shark that has been terrorizing his town's beaches. Aghast at the creature's immense size, Brody tells his boat mates, marine biologist Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfus) and skipper Quint (played by Robert Shaw), "We're gonna need a bigger boat."
Brody never gets his bigger boat, and the one he's on the shark destroys most thrillingly.
University of Phoenix founder John Sperling, however, has gotten his equivalent of a bigger boat in the person of Representative Nancy Pelosi. An April 10, 2011 San Francisco Chronicle article reports that Pelosi recently "broke ranks with Bay Area Democrats and the Obama administration and voted to keep billions of dollars in federal student aid flowing into the coffers of for-profit colleges."
Pelosi's "going rogue" comes in response to legislation currently under consideration that would regulate the amount of federal student aid going to such private career colleges as University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, and Strayer University. Known as the "gainful employment" rule, this bit of legislation "would stiffen federal aid requirements for for-profits, making them provide stats showing that their students actually are getting the jobs they trained for," the article continues.
Threatened with such regulation, which by upsetting their current business practices promises to harm shareholder value, career colleges have not taken news of looming regulation lying down. With Pelosi in their corner career colleges have a potent ally in their struggle, one who shows herself unafraid to defy her party's expectations.
Such an alliance proves especially necessary in light of the fact that a good deal of confusion lingers around the gainful employment rule. A spokesman for Apollo Group, Inc. (University of Phoenix's parent company) issued a statement expressing his company's concern that "the impacts of the proposed restrictions weren't fully understood and that they could limit student options and potentially 'unfairly disadvantage hundreds of thousands of historically underserved students,'" the article reports.
You can't fault the federal government for trying to rein career colleges in a bit. Student loan defaults, particularly among graduates of for-profit institutions, appear to have reached epidemic proportions. An April 9, 2011 Seattle times article states the matter in plain terms:
Thousands of middle-income students who've rushed to for-profit career colleges in recent years have been overwhelmed by aggressive recruitment, loose admission policies, overhyped academic programs, a crippled U.S. economy with few jobs -- and, finally, their massive taxpayer-funded student debt, with little hope of repayment.
Of course, career colleges have their own take on the situation. "The leading industry group for the career colleges, the Coalition for Educational Success, argues that the high default rates don't reflect bad faith on the part of the schools but rather their efforts to take a chance on training more poor and working-class students," the Seattle Times article continues. "Officials with the coalition cite studies showing high loan default rates at traditional nonprofit colleges -- who would not be affected by the proposed rules -- when students from similar economic backgrounds are singled out."
Some might consider this response a version of blaming the victim, but isolating a particular cohort as being at-risk of defaulting on student loans despite whether its members attend career or traditional institutions doesn't appear unwarranted. Yet this doesn't change the fact that career colleges need to rouse themselves from simply reacting to negative press and instead begin generating some good news of their own.
One career college company, Capella Education, appears to be doing just this. An April 9, 2011 Minneaopolis–St. Paul Star-Tribune article brings news of a Twin Cities–based startup company called Sophia, which aims to become a premier aggregator of distance-learning educational material. The company has received significant investment from Capella Education, which considers it as holding tremendous promise.
"The company, named after the Greek word for wisdom," the Star-Tribune article reports, "has an online platform that allows people to upload educational videos, lectures and slide shows on topics that range from U.S. history to chemistry." This content then gets submitted to a plebiscite of a sort among users, who implement a scoring system by which content gets evaluated. "Each piece of information is rated by Sophia's users," the article continues. "A page gets an extra endorsement if three users who say they have master's degrees deem it accurate."
Innovation rolls on in the best and worst of times. Indeed, inventiveness may be one of the most irrepressible human attributes. If career colleges truly wish to put paid to criticisms leveled at them, subsidizing forward-thinking companies like Sophia is a good place to start.