Not-So-Private Enterprise

This morning’s New York Times has a story about Mitt Romney’s campaign-trail praise for a “private” enterprise that–just coincidentally–happens to be owned by one of his largest contributors. It’s a story that could undoubtedly be written about several of the other candidates in an era when money makes the political world go around, and it wouldn’t merit much more than a sigh and a shrug if it weren’t for two things: the enterprise in question and the increasingly dishonest characterization of what constitutes “private enterprise.”

The business that Romney praises as a “cost-effective” alternative to soaring tuition rates is a for-profit college in Florida named Full Sail University. As the Times points out,

“Mr. Romney did not mention the cost of tuition at Full Sail, which runs more than 80,000, for example, for a 21-month program in ‘video game art.'”

Nor did he mention the institution’s 14% graduation rate.

In fact, there has been a growing recognition that many, if not most, for-profit colleges are royal rip-offs, promising students credentials that prove worthless in the marketplace and vastly overcharging for poor-quality instruction. In response, President Obama has proposed new regulations that would make it much more difficult for students attending such institutions to receive federal aid.

And that leads to the problem of mis-characterization. The reason so many of these for-profit colleges are lobbying so frantically against the Obama proposals is that they are “private” enterprises in name only. They depend almost entirely upon the financial aid available to students courtesy of the American taxpayer.

I’m told that for-profit colleges got their biggest boost in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the availability of the GI Bill promised quick profits to educational entrepreneurs who could best market their programs. Today, most of them would disappear without the ability to tap public funds.

We have a long history in this country of politicians extolling the virtues of those who fund their campaigns, and we have an equally long history of people railing against “socialism” and “bailouts” and “welfare” while happily sucking at the public you-know-what. (Remember Ross Perot, that apostle of private-sector “can do” attitudes who made his fortune contracting with the government?)

As the Times article points out, the for-profit college industry has “been the target of withering criticism in the last few years in the wake of federal investigations into fraudulent marketing practices, poor academic records and huge loans assumed by students ill-prepared for the expensive programs.”

Bottom line: these enterprises are not examples of private entrepreneurship. And what they are offering bears little resemblance to an education.