Sunday, August 15, 2010

For-Profit Education on the Skids

In my column in the August 9 issue of Forbes magazine, I warned of a double-dip recession and talked about the importance of investing in stocks with growing dividends in a down market. I gave Washington Post (WPO) as an example of such a stock. The stock, however, has gone lower ever since.

In fact, all for-profit education stocks have been hit. Other examples include Corinthian Colleges (COCO), Apollo Group (APOL), American Public Education (APEI), Strayer Education (STRA), DeVry (DV), Career Education (CECO), Grand Canyon Education (LOPE), Bridgepoint Education (BPI), Education Management Corp. (EDMC), and Lincoln Education (LINC). Not surprisingly, the catalyst for the sell-off is proposed government regulation.

The for-profit education industry has grown in leaps in bounds. An estimated two million students are currently enrolled in such programs. That's about 10% of all students eligible to receive federal financial aid, and that's where the problem lies.

The Department of Education is concerned that at least some for-profit educational institutions are not on the up-and-up. They may be aggressively encouraging students to enroll and borrow money to pay for tuition without offering them any real prospect of finding jobs and paying back their loans. Not unreasonably, the government wants to see evidence that former students are able to pay back their loans and are actually doing so. To be specific, to meet the new guidelines, at least 45% of former students must be paying back principal on their loans, or the average debt burden of former students must be less than 8% of total income or 20% of discretionary income.

Having spent 12 years as a professor at traditional (i.e., not-for-profit) educational institutions, I am in favor of introducing market discipline to higher education. For-profit educational institutions have grown in popularity because they have proven their ability to deliver quality education at a fraction of the price that traditional colleges charge. Too many traditional universities are bloated with highly paid administrators and tenured faculty members who spend little time in the classroom and produce research of only marginal value.

While the profit motive can introduce efficiency and discipline, it can also result in corruption. Yet there is plenty of corruption at not-for-profit institutions as well. The Department of Education should monitor both groups closely. It is perfectly reasonable to ask all for-profit and not-for-profit educational institutions to provide evidence that they are admitting students on a selective basis and teaching them skills that result in gainful employment. Otherwise, we will end up with yet another tax-payer funded bailout.

Disclosure: Vahan Janjigian currently has a long position in Washington Post (WPO).