A company called Education Management Corporation just got sued by the Justice Department. EDMC operates more than a hundred schools for young designers, photographers, and other creative types. What dastardly misdeeds has EDMC committed? According to Photo District News (PDN),
The government says EDMC violated federal rules against paying recruiters based on the number of students enrolled. Those rules are designed to prevent colleges from recruiting unqualified students just to collect student aid money.
I can appreciate the surface appeal of such rules, although their existence points to a bit of a disconnect between how the government works versus how the real world works. In the real world — in this case, the business world — sales people are given short-term targets and long-term goals by their managers. Cold, hard numbers. The sales folks do well for themselves if they meet those targets and goals, and not so well if they don’t. That kind of quantifiability and personal accountability is largely unknown — and, I’d wager, terribly unpopular — in the government sphere, but it’s pretty much the backbone of corporate America.
According to former recruiters and photography students contacted by PDN, many Art Institute graduates [Art Institute is one of the EDMC “brands”] leave with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, and insufficient professional qualifications or job prospects to pay the money back.
Let’s say the EDMC’s colleges were gung-ho, even aggressive, about pushing their “product.” They dared paint an overall rosy picture of their degrees’ economic usefulness. Shocking! Unconscionable! We ought to sue the bastards!
Except that pushing low- to medium-value degrees is something that law schools — including some of the best in the country — do habitually, every day. All of higher education does, with no exceptions I’m aware of. When’s the last time you heard college deans advise students to ditch the pursuit of a particular degree, because employers aren’t really looking for more philosophy majors with a specialization in Hegelian hermeneutics? There are pretty stone buildings to keep up, and tenured-faculty salaries to pay. The show must go on.
If you believe that the vast majority of young people with a degree in English or the humanities find a well-paying, satisfying job in their chosen field, I have a lightly used Nikon D1 I’d be willing to sell you for only $10,000 — totally a collector’s item!
When you read the whole PDN piece, it seems clear that the photography students and their parents acted with startling gullibility, and did very little to get informed. Does anyone hold their feet to the fire at all? Maybe we should. Most of them, it seems, didn’t do the loan repayment math beforehand. They didn’t care enough to distinguish between the cost of earning a credit versus the cost of completing a class, and also didn’t bother to question how a medium-sized city can absorb 600 new photographers over just a few years’ time. And so on.
Oh, and in the culpability department, how about we spare a thought for a government that blithely gives away billions in student aid without applying much in the way of checks, balances, or common sense? That’s despite the fact that Goldman freaking Sachs owns a huge chunk of the schools. Hey, if these students’ futures are paved with gold, guaranteed, why not let private industry make the investment in their careers? And if private industry declines to do just that, shouldn’t that tell you something if you’re one of the fine Washington folks disbursing veritable mountains of taxpayer money? You offer a school a lot of cash (OK, you offer it to the students but it clearly ends up in the school’s coffers), you attach few or no strings, impose no oversight to speak of, and then you’re all butthurt after the schools say “thank you so very much” and take your billions?
Admittedly, I don’t know all the facts of the EDMC case beyond what I learned from the lengthy PDN article. Maybe there’s more to this than meets the eye. But if what the piece describes is the extent of the alleged wrongdoing, and if I were on that jury, I’d vote to acquit in about 2.3 seconds.
Rogier is a Dutch-born, New-England-dwelling multi-media maven (OK, a writer and photographer) whose dead-tree publishing credits include the New York Times, Wired, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Reason.