Chuggin’ the fed keg

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A disproportionate amount of Pell grant funds offered to students are being sucked up by Utah’s for-profit higher education schools (“Fed aid goes to for-profit colleges,” Salt Lake Tribune Nov. 6). While students attending for-profit schools make up about 10 percent of the total student body, roughly 17 percent of the total Pell grant funds disbursed are going to those schools.

For-profit schools actively seek to bring students who qualify for financial aid to their institutions and go out of their way to use them to squeeze every penny out of federal coffers in order to boost their profits. The Tribune article shows that at least one Utah school, Utah Career College, makes over 75 percent of its revenue from federal aid programs, and presumably something similar is true of other for-profit schools.

The reality is that these “private” for-profit institutions are more public than not — the money that keeps them running is almost entirely from the federal government.
It may seem as though how the money gets there matters a great deal. It is funneled through individual students who choose where they are going to spend it. There are individual rights to be considered, and that is what makes this funneling of federal money licit.

But then, the same is true of public schools, isn’t it? There are nine public schools in the Utah System of Higher Education, any one of them offering particular benefits tailored to certain students’ needs. The choice of the individual to spend money at that institution can’t be the reason it appears to be OK to scoop up so much federal aid money for profit.

The reality is that the larger structure of funding is the same in the case of public and “private” for-profit schools — the government forks out some (taxpayer) money, as does the student, and the institution offers an education in return.

The real difference seems to be who owns the school: a private individual or the state. Since this is the case, what it amounts to is that the federal government is doing the work of turning a profit for a private school that could not do so otherwise.

This whole situation creates some degree of ire among those educators and legislators who think that federal funding should be going to actual public schools instead of the faux public education leeches peddling a quick degree down by the freeway.

Private schools are not entirely to blame, however. The reason for these funds going to for-profit schools is not that they are particularly better at what they do. In some cases, they are the only schools which offer certain programs (hardly a ringing endorsement of their educational prowess), and are much quicker at graduating students, and don’t have the kind of wait time that some public colleges have.

In other words, there is nothing particularly special about these schools.  The problem is that real public schools have not been meeting the needs of those who wish to seek technical degrees and/or career training. What profit-oriented schools offer, at a high cost, a public institution can do better and cheaper if only there was the wherewithal to bring these kinds of training into the public education sphere.

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