Frontline: 'For-Profit Colleges Change Higher Education'

07/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last night, the PBS show Frontline tackled the business of college in a one-hour special on for-profit universities, which have carved a multi-billion-dollar niche for themselves in the higher education sector.

Frontline reports on the aggressive recruiting practices of the colleges, as well as the smoke-and-mirrors approach to education and lack of student support and resources:

Graduates [at one] for-profit school -- a college nursing program in California -- tell FRONTLINE that they received their diplomas without ever setting foot in a hospital. Graduates at other for-profit schools report being unable to find a job, or make their student loan payments, because their degree was perceived to be of little worth by prospective employers. One woman who enrolled in a for-profit doctorate program in Dallas later learned that the school never acquired the proper accreditation she would need to get the job she trained for. She is now sinking in over $200,000 in student debt.

For-profit schools have become notorious for targeting low-income and at-risk populations. A recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek detailed how some schools have been recruiting students at homeless shelters.

Frontline correspondent Martin Smith traveled the country interviewing the people behind the University of Phoenix, Argosy University and others. The program opens with the story of Michael Clifford, the vice chairman of Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona. Clifford, a drug addict turned education mogul, never went to college and calls himself an "educational entrepreneur." Sitting across from him in his California beach house, Smith asks: "Do you have the credibility, do you have the bona fides, to be determining the future of colleges across the country?"

"No, I don't," Clifford says. "But I'm doing it."

The Department of Education has recently criticized the for-profit industry, and the Obama Administration is reportedly drafting regulations to reduce the amount of federal aid being pumped into the schools:

"There's an attempt to manage" for-profit colleges by the Obama administration, Robert Wetenhall, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets in New York, said in a telephone interview. The education companies' influence in Washington has "radically changed," from the years of the Bush administration, he said.

In anticipation of the show's airing, for-profit college stocks took a tumble in the market yesterday.

Watch the full program here, and let us know what you think below.