Repeating the Past

By Kevin Kinser

Diploma Mill$: How For-Profit Colleges Stiffed Students, Taxpayers, and the American Dream by A. J. Angulo. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.

Many problems face for-profit higher education today. Critics have accused the sector of using strong-arm recruiting strategies; focusing on accumulating revenue from enrollment instead of providing rigorous education; charging high tuition that leaves students with debt they can’t afford; and misrepresenting outcomes to students, accreditors, and regulators. To many observers, it may seem like the for-profits came from nowhere, catching regulators off guard. Suddenly, these enormous corporations were enrolling tens of thousands of students and taking advantage of loopholes to enrich themselves off Title IV federal student-aid programs. But now that we are on to their game, these critics may believe, new rules can be put in place to protect students from for-profit education abuse. Enforcement of these rules will put all the bad apples permanently out of business. Higher education can finally get back to serving the public good rather than private interests.

In this view, the last twenty years are an aberration. Regulators shouldn’t be blamed for having failed to stop the abuses of the for-profit sector sooner. After all, who could have predicted that the availability of government money for college, paired with a profit-seeking model of education, would result in all the problems we’ve seen? And even if predicted, the innovative for-profit sector proved particularly nimble in subverting existing regulations in novel ways and acting in its own self-interest.

A. J. Angulo eviscerates this position in his book. In his telling, there was every reason to think that the for-profits would not only take advantage of the system but also break the rules and commit outrageous acts of fraud in seeking quick profit. A historian, he looks back to see what for-profit colleges did in the past. Enroll unqualified students? Check. Deliver poor-quality education at exorbitant prices? Check. Misrepresent and lie about the curriculum and student outcomes? Check. Commit outright fraud? You bet. They did it before, and they’ll do it again, if given the chance.

As should be obvious from the title of the book, Angulo sees the for-profit sector as little more than a sham from beginning to end. And the beginning goes back to colonial times, with important stop-offs in mid-nineteenth-century industrialization, the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century, and the midcentury passage of the GI Bill and the Higher Education Act. Everything we see today has happened in some form in the past. Angulo’s theme paraphrases George Santayana’s aphorism: To ignore the past is to be doomed to repeat it.

Angulo documents in detail the myriad of ways for-profits have gotten rich while regulators stood flat-footed. It is, to be sure, a one-sided account. But even the sector’s advocates should shelve their accusations of bias for a moment and attend to the great history collected here. I have researched for-profit higher education in my own scholarship, and I knew the broad outlines of the history before I read this book. Angulo, however, provides original sources to flesh out the scene in each era addressed in the book. We get quotations from college founders, teachers, students, and government officials. He cites contemporary newspapers and magazines to demonstrate the ways these institutions were seen in their time. He shows us the advertisements the for-profits used to recruit students and depicts the rivalries and competition among institutions. We see the responses of regulators to infractions large and small, providing context to such issues as the early twentieth-century broadsides against for-profit law and medical schools and the explosion of fly-by-night schools that followed the passage of the post–World War II GI Bill. It is an engaging story, told with a fluid style and a clear sense of direction.

That doesn’t mean that the story the author recounts is without flaws. Readers should appreciate the detailed history offered but not simply accept Angulo’s narrative at face value. I take issue with several choices he makes, and he leaves out or glosses over important parts of the story.

One problem is on the book’s cover. I understand that, in choosing the overly clever title Diploma Mill$, Angulo (or his publisher) is criticizing the sector for having low academic standards and being driven by profit. And many for-profit institutions in the past were indeed diploma mills. But this labeling of the entire industry is simply wrong. A diploma (or degree) mill is an institution that fraudulently awards academic credentials for little or no effort on the part of the student, other than the payment of a fee for the credential. The vast majority of for-profit institutions, however, have legitimate academic programs that require students to do work of sufficient rigor to justify the award. Adding the dollar sign doubles down on a smear that diminishes the book’s contribution as a history of the for-profit sector. I wish the title—including the dollar sign—could be reconsidered.

Another problem is the lack of balance in the author’s discussion of the evolution of for-profit education in the twentieth century—in sharp contrast with his portrayal of nineteenth-century proprietary business colleges. In writing about that early era, Angulo gives voice to defenders alongside the critics and provides the reader with the context for higher education in the period that encouraged the development of these colleges. In writing about the twentieth century, however, especially from midcentury on, he presents the sector as an unmitigated disaster. One would hardly know that many successful institutions from the nineteenth century continued through the twentieth and that small mom-and-pop schools provided locally relevant training with substantial support from the community throughout this period. Instead, he focuses only on the fraud, with the last half of the book devoted to how, in the 1990s, the big Wall Street–traded corporations abused the Higher Education Act of 1965. To be clear, these points are an important part of the history. But it seems Angulo’s objectivity as a historian declines the closer he gets to the present.

A third problem is the almost complete lack of attention to accreditation as part of the regulatory triad that has provided oversight for higher education since the 1950s. I kept waiting for the author to introduce this topic, especially during his discussion of postwar changes to regulation driven by the era’s for-profit education explosion. Accreditation was established as a gateway to financial aid during this period, because neither the federal government nor the states proved particularly adept at identifying legitimate institutions of higher education for the purposes of the GI Bill. Angulo misses this important piece of history, and thus misses the chance to provide useful historical context for the accreditation debates happening today.

Finally, Angulo gets wrong the way the for-profit sector became engaged in Title IV student-aid programs and summarizes the regulations that followed only as impromptu reactions to the fraud that subsequently emerged. He says that the Higher Education Act was modified in 1972 to include “proprietary institutions” that offered programs to students “who can benefit” from higher education. In fact, the law required institutions to prepare students for “gainful employment” in order to be eligible for Title IV programs. This point is important because, after remaining dormant in the Higher Education Act for thirty-six years, preparation for gainful employment resurfaced in 2009 in regulatory efforts intended to curtail the excesses of the for-profit industry.

In addition to the four issues identified above, I could also quibble about what Angulo doesn’t discuss— the efforts of the Federal Trade Commission to regulate for-profits in the 1970s immediately after their inclusion in the Higher Education Act is one omission I feel obligated to mention—but I understand the need to be selective in the interest of narrative flow. However, Angulo’s choices mean that the definitive modern history of for-profit higher education has yet to be written.

Despite the book’s weaknesses, Angulo makes an important contribution to our understanding of the origins and development of for-profit higher education. His attention to the nineteenth-century institution is groundbreaking. The clear descriptions of scandals plaguing the sector throughout its history also make it clear that the current era is not sui generis. But the lack of balance, particularly as reflected in the title and in its treatment of the more recent history, will cause some to dismiss the entire effort. That would be unfortunate, because there is much to learn from this history if we want not to repeat it.

Kevin Kinser is head of the Department of Education Policy Studies at Pennsylvania State University. He is also senior scientist at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State and a senior fellow for internationalization at NAFSA: Association of International Educators. His e-mail address is kpk9@psu.edu.

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