A Philosopher's Blog

Education & Gainful Employment

Posted in Business, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 5, 2015
English: Table 3 from the August 4, 2010 GAO r...

English: Table 3 from the August 4, 2010 GAO report. Randomly sampled For-Profit college tuition compared to Public and Private counterparts for similar degrees. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over the years I have written various critical pieces about for-profit schools. As I have emphasized before, I have nothing against the idea of a for-profit school. As such, my criticisms have not been that such schools make money. Rather, I have been critical of the performance of such schools as schools, with their often predatory practices, and the fact that they rely so very heavily on federal funding for their profits. This article is, shockingly enough, also critical of these schools.

Assessment in and of higher education has become the new normal. Some of the assessment standards are set by the federal government, some by the states and some by the schools. At the federal level, one key standard is in the Higher Education Act and it states that career education programs “must prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation.” If a school fails to meet this standard, then it can lose out on federal funds such as Pell Grants and federal loans. Since schools are rather fond of federal dollars, they are rather intent on qualifying under this standard.

One way to qualify is to see to it that students are suitably prepared. Another approach, one taken primarily by the for-profit schools (which rely extremely heavily on federal money for their profits) has been to lobby in order to get the standard set to their liking.  As it now stands, schools are ranked in three categories: passing, probationary, and failing. A passing program is such that its graduates’ annual loan payments are below 8% of their total earnings or below 20% of their discretionary incomes. A program is put on probation when the loan payments are in the 8-12% range of their total earnings or 20-30% of discretionary incomes. A program is failing when the loan payments are more than 12% of their total income or over 30% of their discretionary incomes. Students who do not graduate, which happens more often at for-profit schools than at private and public schools, are not counted in this calculation.

A program is disqualified from receiving federal funds if it fails two out of any three consecutive years or it gets a ranking less than passing for four years in a row. This goes into effect in the 2015-2016 academic year.

Interestingly enough, it is matter of common ideology in America that the for-profit, private sector is inherently superior to the public sector. As with many ideologies, this one falls victim to facts. While the assessment of schools in terms of how well they prepare students for gainful employment does not go into effect until 2015, data is already available (the 2012 data seems to be the latest available). Public higher education, which is routinely bashed in some quarters, is amazingly successful in this regard: 99.72% of the programs were rated as passing, 0.18% were rated as being on probation and 0.09% were ranked as failing. Private nonprofit schools also performed admirably with 95.65% of their programs passing, 3.16% being ranked as being on probation and  1.19% rated as failing. So, “A” level work for these schools. In stark contrast, the for-profit schools had 65.87% of their programs ranked as passing, 21.89 ranked as being on probation and 12.23% evaluated as failing. So, these schools would have a grade of “D” if they were students. It is certainly worth keeping in mind that the standards used are the ones that the private, for-profit school lobby pushed for—it seems likely they would do even worse if the more comprehensive standards favored by the AFT were used.

This data certainly seems to indicate that the for-profit schools are not as good a choice for students and for federal funding as the public and non-profit private schools. After all, using the pragmatic measure of student income relative to debt incurred for education, the public and private non-profits are the clear winners. One easy and obvious explanation for this is, of course, that the for-profit schools make a profit—as such, they typically charge considerably more (as I have discussed in other essays) than comparable public and non-profit private schools. Another explanation is that (as discussed in other essays) is that such schools generally do a worse job preparing students for careers and with placing students in jobs. So, a higher cost combined with inferior ability to get students into jobs translates into that “D” grade. So much for the inherent superiority of the for-profit private sector.

It might be objected that there are other factors that explain the poor performance of the for-profit schools in a way that makes them look better. For example, perhaps students who enroll in such programs differ significantly from students in public and non-profit private schools and this helps explain the difference in a way that partially absolves the for-profit schools. As another example, perhaps the for-profit schools suffered from bad luck in terms of the programs they offered. Maybe salaries were unusually bad in these jobs or hiring was very weak. These and other factors are well worth considering. After all, to fail to consider alternative explanations would be poor reasoning indeed. If the for-profits can explain away their poor performance in this area in legitimate ways, then perhaps the standards would need to be adjusted to take into account these factors.

It is also worth considering that schools, public and private, do not have control over the economy. Given that short-term (1-4 year) vagaries of the market could result in programs falling into probation or failure by these standards when such programs are actually “good” in the longer term, it would seem that some additional considerations should be brought into play. Naturally, it can be countered that 3-4 years of probation or failure would not really be short term (especially for folks who think in terms of immediate profit) and that such programs would fully merit their rating.

That said, the latest economic meltdown was somewhat long term and the next one (our bubble based economy makes it almost inevitable) could be even worse. As such, it would seem sensible to consider the broader economy when holding programs accountable. After all, even a great program cannot make companies hire nor compel them to pay better wages.


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13 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on January 5, 2015 at 12:25 pm

    At the federal level, one key standard is in the Higher Education Act and it states that career education programs “must prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation.”

    Mike, since you use the above in your argument, can I take it that you now endorse this standard?

    • WTP said, on January 5, 2015 at 12:37 pm

      I give you, for a third time and yet another post on which Mike has yet to respond, the default rate on student loans for various educational institutions. Which, contrary to the Higher Education Act, should be all that matters to the student. Now in so far as who the government guarantees loans to, the “must prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation” is of primary importance.

      Originally from:


      The default rate for student loans at US colleges and universities, courtesy of the US Departement of Education. Perhaps this should be an indicator of the value of an education at these schools. Of course much depends on what one chooses to study.


      Some sample data, e.g. default rates for various institutions:

      Harvard 1
      Yale 1.4
      University of Miami 2.7
      University of Florida 3
      Florida State 5.2
      Ohio State 5.6
      University of Maine 7
      Webster University 8.2
      Full Sail University 11.8
      Webber College 18
      FAMU 18.3
      University of Phoenix 26.4

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 5, 2015 at 5:46 pm

      Good question. On the one hand, the standard has some serious problems-such as being too vague. But, I do support what seems to be sort of the idea behind this. To be specific, I do think that schools have an obligation to provide education at a reasonable cost, to prepare students for careers in their chosen fields, and to assist them in finding employment or continued professional education. I like the idea of school accountability, but am generally wary of what Congress cranks out-who know what lurks in those masses of papers?

  2. WTP said, on January 5, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    Not to mention that this is so much bullshit. The costs for “public college tuition” are paid for by people like me, the taxpayer. Subsidized in more ways than I have time to list.

    BTW, TJ…google:

    student evaluations FAMU LaBossiere corny jokes

    Should only get one link. Tell me if you think students or taxpayers are getting what they think they are paying for.

    • T. J. Babson said, on January 5, 2015 at 5:05 pm

      Mike’s ratings are a hoot. It is an unfortunate fact of life that a professor’s performance rating is in part determined by student evaluations like the ones posted.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 5, 2015 at 5:55 pm

        Student evaluations are rather problematic. First, students will almost always not be experts at assessing education. Second, they tend to assess based on how they feel about the course (easy As make people feel good). Third, the evaluations tend to be biased: people who really dislike or really like the professor tend to be the ones to take the time to complete them.

        But, I am certainly glad I got that chili pepper for hotness. Running pays off.

      • WTP said, on January 6, 2015 at 9:49 am

        Yeah. My point was more to the comments such as:

        * This class is beyond easy.
        * TAKE HIM!!! HE IS SO EASY
        * He is extremely easy I passed with a B.
        * Take him Easy A
        * Just show up take the quizzes in class everyday and you’ll end up with an A or B
        * Easy to pass his class tho.

        And my two personal favorites, emphasis added:

        * he tries to crack jokes in class and they were funny to everyone else, but i would never hear them cause i was never paying attention, but the ones i did here were lame lol…but i ended up walking away with an A
        * His class is very easy and no one should not fail!

        Where is the quality control here? Were it a private institution using private funds, the above is irrelevant. Everyone is happy. But when the money supporting such is taxpayer money, I question what we are paying for. Is it a rigorous set of exercises designed to teach young people about thinking and thinking critically or a kindergarten for 20 year olds?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 6, 2015 at 6:50 pm

          Why not give equal weight to comments such as

          “TAKE HIM!!! He is the best teacher for this subject. Very Helpful and funny. Your gonna hear the word “stuff” all the time. Lol that’s his word. I got a letter recommendation from him but you have to have good grade for him to do that.”

          “He is also a very funny and helpful teacher.”

          “He explains things very well with great examples. If you take detailed notes, write down examples, and study you should pass the class.”

          “I took him for Intro to Philosophy. He is a very cool down to earth guy. I received a B in the class, but if I would looked over my notes a few times more I would have gotten an A. He is always willing to help you and to clarify.”

          Or, better yet, consider the nature of Rate my Professors and how rigorous it is as a means of assessment of faculty.

          If you are ever in Tallahassee, feel free to stop by my classes and observe. Or send a spy, in case you think I’d just put on a show if I knew I was being observed.

        • TJB said, on January 6, 2015 at 11:23 pm

          As a teacher, your job is to do the best job you can with the students you have. I don’t think Mike can be faulted that FAMU is not an Ivy League university.

          • WTP said, on January 7, 2015 at 10:13 am

            Yeah..missing the point. I’m not disparaging the students, per se. In fact from my experience the FAMU grads that I have worked with have all been of substantial quality. None had Mike for an instructor, though. But such is still missing the point. A class where someone “was never paying attention…but i ended up walking away with an A” is highly unlikely to be teaching much. I challenge you to find such reviews in the math, physics, or chemistry departments where a student makes a similar statement. If you’re not paying attention in math, physics, or chemistry, you’re not getting an A.

            Cute how Mike misses the point as well. I didn’t quote a single criticism of him, so he has to pull more ass-kissing reviews. It’s the lack of rigor in the subject matter that I’m attempting to address, not how helpful he is. Also cute how/what Mike chooses to respond to. How about some response on the (three times posted now) student loan default rate comparisons twixt Full Sail or Webster and Mike’s own institution. No interest in discussing objective data.

            I ask you this, which these two inferences is more likely to be true?
            1) These reviews are indicative of a very weak subject matter, of a class that lacks rigor or purpose
            2) “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” is indicative of the nature and attitude of our police.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 7, 2015 at 5:26 pm

              As far as the content of the classes, you can get the older versions from https://mclphilosophy.wordpress.com/ and assess the content for rigor and purpose.

              Naturally, I freely admit that my general education philosophy classes that have to be aimed at non-majors who need to fulfill humanities and writing requirements are not as hard as the math, physics and chemistry classes intended for majors in those areas.

              Back when I was a young professor, I got called in for making my courses too hard-chairs of other departments were complaining that they were too rough for their students. My chair explained the realities of general education and the bimodal distribution of students. So, I had the challenge of creating courses that would be survivable for the students who just need to get their humanities and writing classes done and who are not philosophy majors. I also had to take into account the fact that I had three sets of students in every class: exceptional students (often national merit scholars), average students and those admitted as part of the mission of public schools (that is, people who really did not qualify for college). For example, my first logic class included a person who had interned at Apple and worked on QuickTime and a person who admitted to me that he could barely read. Making a class that can meet all these needs is a bit of a challenge.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 7, 2015 at 5:07 pm

            But, I am also not an Ivy League professor. I do have poison ivy around my house, though.

  3. ajmacdonaldjr said, on January 5, 2015 at 2:02 pm

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