June 6, 2013

For-Profit College Analyst Says “Subprime” Students Are To Blame

traceA Wells Fargo stock analyst, who boosts for-profit colleges while frequently overlooking their abuses, lays the blame for one particularly predatory college’s high failure rate at the feet of low-income students, or, as he calls them, “subprime” students.

Summarizing a presentation by Corinthian Colleges, which has one of the worst records of serving students of any for-profit college, analyst Trace Urdan wrote that “essentially all of Corinthian’s borrowers can be characterized as sub-prime.” Urdan’s report finds that Corinthian “remains viable and potentially appealing in the long term” for investors, and blames federal rules for the company’s struggles.

After I reported Urdan’s statement on Twitter, we engaged in a discussion (see below) in which Urdan appeared to blame Corinthian students for ending up with overwhelming debt.

Here are the facts about Corinthian:

  • California’s Attorney General found that Corinthian falsified students’ employment records to inflate the company’s job placement rate for graduates.  In 2008, the company paid $6.6 million to settle the investigation out-of-court.  An investigation by WFAA-TV in Dallas found that Corinthian falsified employment records of Texas students.
  • 66.5 percent of Corinthian associate degree students drop out, as do 59.2 percent of its bachelor’s degree students.
  • An associate degree in business at Corinthian’s Everest College in Florida costs$46,792, while the same program at Miami Dade Community College costs $6,453.  A bachelor of science in business at Everest in Florida costs $81,680; the same degree from the University of Florida costs $24,458.
  • Three-quarters of students who attended Corinthian-owned schools were unable to pay down any principal on their student debt in 2009, according to data from the Department of Education.  Thirty-six percent of Corinthian students default on their loans within three years – the highest rate of all publicly traded for-profit education companies.  Worse, Corinthian spent $10 million in 2010 to “manage” student defaults– repeatedly telephoning students to convince them to enter interest-bearing loan forbearance or deferment — in order to be able to report lower default rates to the Department of Education.
  • Last year, the Education Department released information about which career training programs and for-profit colleges are passing — and which are flunking — its new “gainful employment” rule.  The Obama Administration watered down this regulation last year after a massive lobbying campaign by the for-profit college industry, and the rule imposes only the most minimal standards, measuring how many students are paying back their loans and how much debt they have compared to their inc0me. Corinthian’s Everest College and Universities performed the absolute worst of all schools — 43 out of 143 programs at those schools failed each of the three gainful employment tests.
  • In 2009, Corinthian received at least 89.4 percent of its revenue from federal taxpayer dollars, with Pell grants, student loans, G.I. Bill funding and other aid  totaling $1.4 billion.
  • Because federal aid still doesn’t cover all the cost of attending Corinthian, in 2009 and 2010 the company made private loans totaling $240 million to its students at an average interest rate of 13 to 15 percent, with some students paying as much as 18 percent.  According to its own internal analysis, Corinthian estimated that 55 percent of students with these loans will default.
  • Corinthian spent between $5 and $10 million on an advertising campaign to block federal accountability standards.

Urdan’s conclusion, however, when I cited Corinthian’s abysmal record, was this: “School offers quality instruction and opportunity. Students make of it what they will.”

Blaming the students that way is remarkable, given the evidence that Corinthian has engaged in fraudulent conduct. It’s like saying about a restaurant that serves poison-laced food, “Diners make of it what they will.”  If the majority of students drop out of Corinthian schools, and the majority of students can’t pay back their loans, the school is clearly doing things wrong — charging too much, offering poor quality programs, failing to deliver on promises to train people for productive careers.

But Urdan keeps working to blame others besides the for-profit schools. At a Department of Education hearing last week in San Francisco, Urdan criticized the Department for rulemaking processes that he said harmed investors in for-profit colleges, according to people who attended.

This week an LA Times columnist covered a story that I wrote about in April — the dismaying decisions by former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and National Urban League President Marc Morial to join the Corinthian Colleges board of directors. The Times article drew a wholly unresponsive PR response from Corinthian president Jack Massimino.

Here’s the Twitter exchange: