When the economy is struggling and jobs are being lost, it is not surprising to see people enroll in school to increase their chances of finding employment. This is exactly what happened during the recession. Consequently, for-profit education was one of the best performing sectors in the stock market. The stock prices of companies such as Apollo Group (NASDAQ:APOL), American Public Education (NASDAQ:APEI), Corinthian Colleges (NASDAQ:COCO), Strayer Education (NASDAQ:STRA), and ITT Educational Services (NYSE:ESI) performed very well during this time.
The stocks of these companies did well until April 2010, when an attack was launched against all of the for-profit education companies. Steven Eisman, portfolio manager of FrontPoint Partners, delivered an eye-opening presentation titled “Subprime goes to College,” at the Ira Sohn Conference in May 2010. The following is the link to the presentation:
In addition, Tom Harkin, a senator from Iowa, began conducting a series of one-sided senate hearings reviewing for-profit education companies. The following is a list of the hearings:
By reading Eisman’s presentation and listening Harkin’s hearings, you are likely to come to the following conclusion:
For-profit education companies are run by profit-hungry executives, provide poor quality education, charge exorbitant amounts of money for tuition, and recruit low-income individuals in order to saddle them with excessive debt. They even have the audacity to recruit students from homeless shelters.
This is exactly what these critics want you to believe. However, if you don’t take their arguments at face value, you might start asking questions. Do the critics really believe that this industry became successful by accident? Do they really think that students are just so stupid that they would enroll in poor quality educational institutions that charge them a lot of money for nothing? Do they really believe that these companies would be able to grow so quickly if they provided poor customer service?
The critics are claiming that the industry is corrupt, but if it truly was and if they had a good case against it, why wouldn’t they just use facts instead of stretching the truth and presenting only one side of the story? Maybe they have some kind of motive behind their actions. Could it be possible that the traditional educational institutions are afraid of the for-profit education companies, which are gaining market share by offering students choices that non-profits are failing to deliver? Could it be that short sellers such as Eisman would do anything to destroy the industry in order to profit from it? What exactly are the critics saying and what is the truth? This is the goal of this article. For full disclosure, I am long Bridgepoint Education (NYSE:BPI) because after thoroughly researching this company and the for-profit education industry, I have come to the conclusion that the for-profit education industry serves an underserved market and is here to stay, and the critics will not be successful at destroying it.
Critics: For-profit education companies derive the majority of their revenues from the government.
Truth: This statement can be interpreted in different ways but the critics want us to believe that for-profit education companies are almost 100 percent subsidized by the government. While it is true that the majority of the revenue generated by for-profit education companies do come from Title IV funds (Pell grants and Stafford loans), they are not subsidies. Title IV funds are available to students of both for-profit and non-profit schools because they are primary vehicles for students to fund their education. The reason why a greater percentage of students from for-profit schools rely on them is because they tend to be working adults who are independent as opposed to recent high school graduates who sometimes receive financial help from their parents. For-profit schools do not receive subsidies from the government. It is the non-profits that receive subsidies.
Critics: For-profit education companies recruit low-income students so that they can charge as much tuition as possible by maximizing the amount of money provided by Title IV funds.
Truth: Traditional schools are very good at serving recent high school graduates who dedicate themselves full time to their education. Consequently, if for-profit schools targeted these same students, they would fail to attract them. Instead, they cater to non-traditional students because the traditional schools fail to serve them well. For-profit education companies have carved out a niche accommodating such students by offering a wide variety of online classes and evening/weekend classes in locations convenient for working adults. According to Richard S. Ruch and George Keller, the authors of "Higher Ed, Inc," a typical student who attends a for-profit school is a:
“27-year-old female, ethnic minority, U.S. citizen, married with one or two dependents, holding a full or part-time job while going to school full time, and having some prior college experience. This student did not excel academically in high school and had mixed success in prior college work but has come to a realization that a college degree is the most sensible and effective route to a better job, a higher standard of living, and opportunities for career advancement. She is motivated and serious about education for perhaps the first time in her life. She sees higher education as a means to an end. In pursuing her degree, she is struggling to juggle the responsibilities of school, work, and family. She is financing her education the same way most students do, through a combination of financial aid-grants and loans and personal savings.”
Non-traditional students qualify for Title IV funds and rarely receive financial help for their education from their parents.
Critics: Not only do for-profit schools recruit low-income students, but they even recruit from homeless shelters.
Truth: This one gets your attention, doesn’t it? For-profit education companies are so unscrupulous that they even go to homeless shelters because they are running out of people to rob. While it is possible that someone actually tried this, it most certainly is not a widespread practice.
When you are running a for-profit education school and your students are getting Title IV funding, you must keep student default rates below a certain amount. If they exceed the allowable limit, your school loses eligibility for Title IV funds, and you are basically out of business. Therefore, recruiting people from homeless shelters with no ability to pay would be counterproductive.
But this doesn’t stop the critics from trying to convince us that homeless shelter recruiting is widespread in the for-profit education industry. One critic went so far as to pay someone to fabricate or exaggerate this story. Johnette McConnell Early pretended to be a Bloomberg reporter and solicited signatures from homeless shelter executives to write a letter to the secretary of education. Here is the letter:
After the homeless shelter executives learned that Early was paid by an investment firm, they regretted signing the letter. Some even said that in reality that never saw recruiting occurring at their homeless shelter but had heard about it. The following is the article titled “Investment Funds Stir Controversy Over Recruiting by For-Profit Colleges.”
Critics: For-profit schools charge too much for tuition.
Truth: In order to be competitive, for-profit schools set their tuition somewhere between public and private non-profit institutions. Tuition prices vary from one for-profit school to another. For example, University of Phoenix has higher tuition prices than Bridgepoint Education which strives to provide affordable education. The founder of Bridgepoint Education came from University of Phoenix, and founded the company because he saw that there was an unmet need for affordable and flexible education services.
To understand why tuition prices are set at certain levels, read the next point.
Critics: U.S. for-profit education companies are among the most profitable businesses in the world.
Truth: Why are U.S. for-profit education companies so profitable? First, they have scalable business models, and they can control their expenses. Second, because traditional non-profit schools continue to raise tuition excessively year after year, it allows for-profit schools to charge tuition that is competitive and at the same time high enough for for-profit schools to generate high-profit margins. Third, government policies are actually contributing to the high profit margins by encouraging a continual increase in the price of tuition.
Why are for-profit education companies able to control expenses better than non-profits?
First, the majority of their student population consists of working adults, so they do not need to spend money on large libraries, big athletic facilities, on-campus student housing, and famous/overpaid professors in order to attract students. For-profits do not offer tenure to their faculty, and this enables them to cut a large amount of fixed expenses out of their cost structure. Also, for-profit schools are not research universities; their instructors are paid to teach students and not to conduct research.
Second, because many of for-profit are publicly traded companies, they answer to shareholders, and therefore, they have an incentive to keep their expenses as low as possible without sacrificing quality.
Why are for-profit education companies able to charge tuition high enough to generate healthy profit margins?
Non-profit schools have been raising their tuition rates excessively each year, and for-profits set their tuition at rates that are competitive with non-profit schools. If tuition levels were lower at traditional non-profit schools, then for-profit schools would have no choice but to charge less in order to compete. So, the next question is why are non-profits raising their tuition rates excessively?
One reason is that it used to be special to graduate from a college or university. Higher education was something that made people different. Today, with government-backed student loans, many more people get college degrees. As the demand outpaces the supply, colleges and universities are able to charge more.
However, the bigger problem is how these institutions operate and waste money. Because the majority of colleges and universities are non-profit, they are not operated like businesses. They don’t try to control their expenses the way typical businesses do. Actually, they have an incentive to spend as much money as possible. Colleges and universities are in constant competition with each other to attract the best students possible, so they offer a wide variety of food choices, smaller classes, better dorms, bigger athletic facilities, more renowned instructors, and larger libraries, and they spend more on research to improve their reputations. In the end, what they are doing is outspending each other, which translates into higher costs. Who do you think is paying for all this? Aside from endowments and alumni donations, it is the government through subsidies and students through tuition. A great book on this subject is "Tuition Rising: Why Colleges Costs so Much" by Ronald G. Ehrenberg.
How do government policies push tuition prices higher and higher?
First, students are able to bear the expense with the help of the government. If the government did not provide student loans backed by government guarantees, then those students would have less purchasing power and the traditional non-profits would be forced to lower tuition rates in order to continue operating. For example, this situation is similar to homebuyers obtaining a mortgage. When they can get financing, they can afford a more expensive home than they could if they had to pay for it themselves. This is evident because when financing is in short supply, the prices of homes go down. The following link is an interview of a former student by Peter Schiff, who points out that the reason why college costs are so high is because students are able to borrow a lot of money while the government cosigns on the loans.
Second, because students are able to borrow and bridge the gap with student loans, the traditional non-profit colleges and universities can put all their efforts into attracting the best student demographic, which improves their reputations. This means better dorms, smaller classes, etc., which translates into higher costs.
Third, there is something called the 90/10 rule which only applies to for-profit schools. This rule requires the for-profit schools to derive at least 10 percent of revenues from sources other than Title IV funds. This means that at least 10 percent of tuition has to be financed by students through private loans, credit cards, or savings. For-profit schools take this rule very seriously because if they break it, they will lose their eligibility for Title IV funds, which means they are pretty much out of business. How does this rule increase tuition costs? The government sets the rules about how much a student can receive in Pell grants and Stafford loans for various programs, and schools cannot control how much students choose to borrow. Let’s assume that a for-profit school is willing to charge only $7,000 for a $10,000 program because it either wants to increase its competitiveness or through efficient expense control, is able pass on savings to students. In this case, the school would fail the 90/10 rule because more than 100 percent of tuition ($7,000) would be financed by Title IV funds ($10,000). So what does the school do instead? Even though it is able to charge less, it is forced to increase the tuition for this program to $11,111 just to stay compliant with 90/10 rule.
Tuition cost = $11,111
Title IV covers $10,000 which is 90 percent of $11,111
Student pays $1,111 which is 10 percent of $11,111
Then, the following year, the government increases limits on Pell grants and Stafford loans to help students cope with tuition increases. The for-profits are forced to raise tuition again, and the cycle continues.
Critics: For-profit education schools rip people off by providing poor quality education.
Truth: The critics would like us to believe that for-profits can actually get away with providing poor quality education while making millions for themselves. I have a client that teaches for both a non-profit institution and for a for-profit school, Ashford University. What strikes me as hypocritical is that according to the critics’ argument, he is good enough to be a teacher for a non-profit institution but when he teaches for the for-profit institution, he provides poor education because of the for-profit label.
Here is a quote from Higher Ed, Inc. by Richard S. Ruch and George Keller:
“No for-profit college or university can survive without providing both a reasonably high-quality educational experience and a high level of customer service. If someone imagines that these institutions make profits merely because they offer a substandard education on a massive scale, they are largely mistaken. Student consumers, especially the more mature students typical of the for-profit providers, are knowledgeable and demanding customers who are not easily satisfied. They demand a substantial and rigorous educational experience for their tuition dollars, along with a high level of convenience and customer service. And if they do not find it, they will go elsewhere.”
But let’s look at other examples. How about asking students what they think about Ashford University? When I went to collegepowler.com and read reviews on Ashford University, I got all kinds of reviews ranging from A to F. If I wanted to mislead you the way the critics do, and make you believe that Ashford University is a terrible institution, I might use the following reviews to give a one-sided impression of the level of students’ satisfaction:
“The downfall to Ashford University is that, they do not offer any assistance in job placement or help with finding a job. That is a nice feature that other universities and colleges offer that would be nice if Ashford would take this challenge on as well.”
“I feel the financial aid personnel are not knowledgeable or helpful. I never receive a return call when I leave messages. I also do not receive any acknowledgment of email. My advisor does not even realize I was awarded a student loan. They also took two months to process my financial aid. They also hold funds. I am very unhappy with the financial aid at this school.”
How about if I want to persuade you that Ashford University is a great place? In this case, I would use the following reviews:
“I am on my third online class, and am really enjoying it. The benefits of online courses mean that I can work my schedule around them. As I work part time, and have children, this is an important aspect for me.”
“Ashford University has been a true blessing for me by offering online courses through graduation. I have three small children and would not have been able to attend college full time if I had to attend face-to-face classes. I have enjoyed my instructor and learned a wealth of information in early childhood education. Ashford also seems to be more affordable than most on-line universities. If I could do it all over, I would have followed my parents advice and finished school before having a family, but under the same circumstances, I would definitely choose Ashford if I were to do it all over.”
While I can pick whatever review I want to try to persuade you to my point of view, I cannot really twist the following facts:
On the day that I studied collegepowler.com, I read a total of 461 reviews. Out of 461 reviews, 338 were A, 85 were B, 27 were C, 7 were D, and 4 were F. This means that 92 percent of reviews were either A or B. So how is it possible for Ashford University to be so terrible if 92 percent of reviews are positive? However, critics still found a way to trash Bridgepoint Education, the parent company of Ashford University. On March 10, 2010, they titled their senate hearing Bridgepoint Education Inc: A Case Study in For-Profit Education and Oversight.
Why was Bridgepoint Education singled out? Because it is the most successful growth story in the for-profit education industry. You read that right – the company was singled out by the politicians in the capitalistic United States of America because it is extremely successful. According to critics, because Bridgepoint Education is so successful, then it must have done something wrong. In 2005, Bridgepoint Education acquired regionally-accredited Franciscan University of the Prairies and renamed it Ashford University. At the time of the acquisition, Franciscan University of the Prairies had only 312 students and was on the brink of collapse. Bridgepoint Education saved the struggling school and grew the student enrollment to 70,000 by 2010. But, the critics argue, they did it with the evil intent of profit. It is not unusual for companies in a capitalistic system to earn profits. I guess the critics would have rather seen the struggling school fail than acknowledge that Bridgepoint Education saved it from closing down.
The critics might still come back and say that the reviews that I cited should not be relied upon because the school administrators could have written these reviews. Sunjay Gorawara, graduate from Indiana University, delivered a winning presentation of Bridgepoint Education as an investment idea at the Ira Sohn Conference on May 25, 2011, exactly one year after Eisman delivered his “Subprime goes to College.” He used Facebook and LinkedIn to contact Ashford graduates and received feedback consistent with the online reviews.
After studying everything that the critics are claiming, it becomes obvious that the critics are playing dirty and are twisting facts to advance their agenda. The media is also happy to jump on the bandwagon. Who wouldn’t want to write about students robbed by profit-hungry businesses? It is sensational. For example, during the first senate hearing titled Emerging Risk? An Overview of Growth, Spending, Student Debt and Unanswered Questions in For-Profit Higher Education, Yasmine Issa, a dissatisfied student, appeared to testify about how she ended up in debt after taking an ultrasound sonography program at a for-profit school and couldn’t find employment because the program was not accredited. While it is totally understandable that she was dissatisfied with the school, how come there weren’t any other students testifying who were satisfied with the school? I found 423 positive reviews and the senate committee couldn’t find even one satisfied student. It gets even dirtier – another witness, Steven Eisman, a hedge fund manager, short seller, and the presenter of the “Subprime goes to College” presentation, testified as one of the witnesses. What is a short seller of for-profit education stocks doing at a senate hearing testifying against the stocks that he will personally benefit from destroying? Do you expect him to say anything positive about the industry? Of course not. He will trash it as much as he can because he knows that he will make millions of dollars by doing so. Senator Harkin should be ashamed of himself for acting like he is protecting students and bringing Eisman to testify against the industry. But the dirty tactics do not end here. What does Eisman do after his comments successfully drive market capitalizations of for-profit companies down? He contacts the Chronicle of Higher Education and announces that he will pay off Yasmine Issa’s student debts. If he is such a caring person, why doesn’t he just pay it off without alerting the media? Here is the article from the Chronicle.
So the question is who helped who: Did Eisman help Issa or did Issa help Eisman? The senate hearing took place on Thursday, June 24, 2010, and Eisman announced his altruistic intentions on Monday, June 28, 2010. Because for-profit education stocks plummeted after the senate hearing, Eisman, being short, made millions of dollars by the end of Friday. Paying off $17,000 of Issa’s debt was nothing in comparison to what her testimony did for him. For $17,000, I can find a student that will testify that for-profit education companies are the best schools in the world. To me, Eisman’s actions are unethical and self-serving. It is hard not to conclude that Eisman would be willing to destroy an entire industry just so that he can profit from it.
Critics: Not only do for-profit companies rip people off, but the government, the students, and the taxpayer bear all the risk, and the for-profit industry reaps all the rewards. In other words, profits are privatized and risks are socialized.
Truth: According to critics, the problem arises when a student attends a for-profit school, pays high tuition, takes on a large amount of student debt and then cannot find employment. In this case, he or she defaults on the student loan, and the government along with the taxpayers lose because they provided the funding. At the same time, they also say that students cannot walk away from student loans like they can walk away from a mortgaged house. I am confused, if the student is stuck with the student loan for life, how can the government and taxpayer be on the hook? Don’t these statements contradict each other? Who is on the hook – the government, the taxpayer or the student? Eisman answers it himself in his presentation, “because of fees associated with default, the government collects approximately $1.20 on every $1.00 lent.” So if the government collects $1.20 on every $1.00 lent, how does this cost taxpayers money? It doesn’t and the critics know it, but it sounds better if the government, the taxpayer, and the student are on the hook while the companies make millions.
Not only do the for-profits not cost the government money, they actually make the government money. After all expenses are subtracted from revenues, these companies pay corporate income tax on the profits that they generate. Then, the shareholders pay taxes on dividends and capital gains. It is the non-profits that cost the government money because, unlike for-profits, they are subsidized by the government and pay no taxes on the bottom line.
Critics: Students of for-profit education companies cannot find jobs after graduation and find themselves deep in debt.
Truth: In this economy, students from all types of schools have a hard time finding employment and end up with high debt levels. The following is from the article “16 Shocking Facts about Student Debt and The Great College Education Scam.”
“As you read this, there are over 18 million students enrolled at the nearly 5,000 colleges and universities currently in operation across the United States. Many of these institutions of higher learning are now charging $20,000, $30,000 or even $40,000 a year for tuition and fees. That does not even count living expenses. Today it is 400% more expensive to go to college in the United States than it was just 30 years ago.
“Most of these 18 million students have been told over and over that a ‘higher education’ is the key to getting a good job and living the American Dream. They have been told not to worry about how much it costs and that there is plenty of financial aid (mostly made up of loans) available.
“Now our economy is facing the biggest student loan debt bubble in the history of the world, and when our new college graduates enter the ‘real world’ they are finding out that the good jobs they were promised are very few and far between.”
Here is a quote from “Gen Y: No job, lots of loans, grim future.”
“They are perhaps the best-educated generation ever, but they can’t find jobs. Many face staggering college loans and have moved back in with their parents. Even worse, their difficulty in getting careers launched could set them back financially for years.
“The Millennials, broadly defined as those born in the 1980s and ‘90s, are the first generation of American workers since World War II who have cloudier prospects than the generation that preceded them.”
Based on these statements, is it fair to blame for-profit schools for the problems created by poor economy? The critics do not have a problem with this.
Critics: For-profit education companies overpromise and underdeliver. They promise good paying jobs and rarely deliver on their promises.
Truth: If the critics want to make an argument that for-profit education companies overpromise and underdeliver, then why won’t they look at every single industry because every single industry does it? I am not saying that it is right for companies to overpromise and underdeliver, but unfortunately, this is how the business world operates. Showing quick results, happy people, beautiful models, and wonderful lives is what marketing is all about. This is what makes people buy products and services. Consumers have to be smart about their choices and take responsibility for their actions.
The critics say that they would have no problem with the for-profit education industry if it educated students and got jobs for them. Why don’t they look at traditional colleges and universities and compare their success on this front?
There are millions of traditional students who are swimming in debt and unable to find employment. How come the critics don’t have any problems with traditional colleges and universities? Why should for-profit schools operate under different rules than non-profits? Why don’t the critics learn what really drives tuition costs, which are the culprit for high debt levels? Why don’t they realize that the government and the non-profits are the ones that drive tuition costs to ridiculous levels making it hard for Americans to get a college education?
Also, since when are schools supposed to be in the employment placement business? Why are only for-profit schools expected to find employment for their students? Traditional students don’t expect their non-profit schools to find them jobs. The majority of them know that once they graduate, it is their responsibility to send out resumes, apply for jobs, and network to find employment. However, the critics of the for-profit schools complain that these schools fail to find students jobs. Just because someone gets a degree does not mean that the world owes him or her a job. The government already helped with funding the tuition. Now the critics expect the government to require for-profit schools to find their students jobs. Education, from any school, whether it is from for-profit or non-profit, only increases the chances of finding employment. It does not guarantee it. It is the student’s job to sell him or herself to employers. Within the economy, each student is a product. Any successful business owner knows that after a product is manufactured, it has to be properly marketed to be sold. If getting a high-paying job only required a degree, then everybody would go to school and we would have no unemployment in this country. Wouldn’t life be wonderful?
Critics: Students of for-profit education companies default on their loans more often than students of non-profit educational institutions.
Truth: The critics argue that because the for-profit schools only care about profits, they will enroll anyone, and therefore, their students default at a rate much higher than students of the non-profit schools. Unfortunately, the critics also conveniently choose to ignore the fact that many of the for-profit schools serve low-income students who are more likely to default than high and mid-income students. When you compare schools, both for-profits and non-profits, that serve similar student demographics, you will learn that for-profits are actually doing better.
So why won’t the critics use an apples to apples comparison? Because it would not suit their agendas well.
Critics: For-profit education companies are marketing machines masquerading as universities.
Truth: For-profit schools are structured as businesses that strive to deliver profits to their shareholders. They are divided into two main departments: school and recruiting. The school is responsible for educating students. If you went to some of these schools, you probably would not recognize whether you are in the classroom of a for-profit or non-profit institution. However, the recruiting department of the for-profits is much different. The recruiting department is nothing but sales and its responsibility is to enroll students. Critics argue that for-profit schools only care about sales. This is extremely misleading. It is the recruiting department that cares mostly about sales because this is their job. Once the students are enrolled, the job of educating is transferred to another department. If critics have a problem with this, then they should have a problem with other industries because this is how many businesses operate.
For-profit schools not only do a pretty good job of educating but they also are much quicker at innovating and adapting to the changing needs of students and employers. Who do you think was first with online education: for-profits or non-profits? For-profits are quick to introduce programs that are actually needed by students and employers. For example, Universal Technical Institute communicates with auto manufacturers and learns what it is that they need from their workforce, and they design their curriculum based on what the employers tell them. On the innovative side, some for-profit schools are even introducing Android and iPhone applications to enhance the learning process. For example, Bridgepoint Education recently announced an Android application.
Show me a non-profit school that is doing this. Non-profits barely engage in online education and are slower to adapt. For example, many non-profits still teach the majority of students a variety of subjects that bear little relevance to their chosen fields and, at the same time, often fail to teach subjects that directly prepare students for employment.
Critics: For-profit education companies pay their executives millions. The CEO of Bridgepoint Education makes 20 times what the president of Harvard makes.
Truth: During the senate hearings, Senator Harkin expressed outrage that the CEO of Bridgepoint Education is making more than $20 million. First of all, what right does Harkin have to say how much a CEO of a publicly traded company makes? If the CEO performs and delivers results, it is none of his business even if he makes $1 billion per year. Second of all, the claim that Bridgepoint Education’s CEO makes more than $20 million is misleading. The following is the actual compensation for 2008-2010, which was taken from was taken from the proxy documents of Bridgepoint Education:
(Click charts to expand)
As you can see, Andrew Clark’s total compensation was $1,213,912 in 2008 and $2,233,826 in 2010. Why doesn’t Harkin use either of these figures? Perhaps, because it sounds a lot better to say that the CEO of Bridgepoint Education makes 20 times what the president of Harvard makes. However, he fails to disclose the fact that the compensation for 2009 was unusually high because the company’s options were repriced after the company went public. If you look at the compensation for other executives, you will see the same trend in 2009:
So if Harkin cannot ethically disclose the more accurate amount for how much the CEO of Bridgepoint Education, what else is he stretching?
I could go on and on about what the critics are saying about the for-profit education companies. After I dig a little more into every single statement, I find out that they either stretched the truth or cherry-picked the facts to suit their agendas. The problem is not the for-profit education industry but the entire higher education system because currently, it costs way too much, and for many, the costs exceed the benefits. If nothing is done about the real problem, tuition prices will continue to rise excessively.
There is no question that a college degree is worth something but this doesn’t mean that students should pay any price for it. If the schools don’t get a handle on how they spend their money, I am not going to be surprised to see a $1 million price tag for a college education by the time I have children that are ready to go to college.