COLLEGE INC.: contextualizing the PBS documentary on for-profit universities, Wall Street, and government regulation

Link here for access to PBS’s COLLEGE INC., which was aired on 4 May 2010. RAINmedia, which produced the documentary for PBS’s FRONTLINE, describes the show this way:

Higher education is a multi-billion industry fueled by taxpayer money. One of the fastest-growing–and most controversial–sectors of the industry is the for-profit colleges and universities. Unlike traditional colleges that raise money from wealthy alumni and other donors, many for-profit schools sell shares to investors on Wall Street. But what are students getting out of the deal? Critics say a worthless degree and a mountain of debt. Proponents insist they’re innovators, widening access to education. FRONTLINE producer and correspondent Martin Smith follows the money to uncover how for-profit universities are transforming the way we think about college in America…

This show, which is currently generating ripples across the higher education and investment landscapes in the US, is also relevant for readers in other countries, most notably the UK, Chile and Mexico (where Apollo Global is particularly active), and Australia (e.g., see ‘Commercial campuses ready to fill gap‘, The Australian, 5 May 2010).

And speaking of topical news, it is noteworthy (but purely coincidental, re. timing?) that former US President Bill Clinton “accepted the role of Honorary Chancellor of Laureate International Universities, the global network of leading private universities” one week ago. This is a paid position, “honorary” title aside, though Laureate has refused to disclose the sums involved.

And is it purely coincidental that the show is being released amidst vigorous debates about forthcoming US federal regulations that, according to Bloomberg news:

may reduce the amount of federal financial aid flowing to for-profit colleges, cutting the companies’ annual revenue growth by as much as a third.

In response, the $29 billion industry and its supporters including Republican Senators have enlisted top Washington lobbyists and are courting black and Hispanic legislators to fight the proposed rules scheduled to be released as early as this month.

While these debates may seem US-centric at first glance, their outcomes will have implications at a much large scale for these firms are establishing global agendas and networks.

Kris Olds