When tiny Sweet Briar College announced its closing, it was front page news. It was heralded as the beginning of the end for liberal arts colleges and single sex schools. But when the large Corinthian College system closed campuses across the country, it did not receive the same level of attention. It should have received more focus.
Same-sex school Sweet Briar College, located in rural Virginia, had a healthy endowment but a declining enrollment. The administration that recently decided to shut down the school, to the dismay of the students and faculty, and especially the alumni, which is challenging that closing.
Last year, Corinthian Colleges Inc., one of the largest for-profit education companies (consisting of Everest College, Heald College, and WyoTech), with 72,000 students on 85 campuses in 26 states, decided to shut down after clashes with the U.S. Department of Education. According to The Daily Record "Regulators have grown increasingly concerned about inconsistencies in its job placement claims for graduates."
It's only one of several cases where national and state prosecutors have been investigating for-profit institutions for the quality of education, inflated job claims, and pushing students toward expensive private loans with high default rates. Even the well-known University of Phoenix (with its impressive football stadium) is seeing a huge decline in enrollment numbers.
How the media responded to both school closings says a lot about how we perceive both types of school. The press seems to have made up its own mind that all small colleges are doomed, while for-profit schools are the exciting future, even if the latter is in more financial trouble.
A Google search on the number of times Sweet Briar College was mentioned as closing down was 374,000. The number of times Corinthian College closings were mentioned was 119,000 times.
Looking on Yahoo, I found 76,000 hits about Sweet Briar College closing. There were 79,000 hits on Corinthian Colleges closing, even though there are many more students affected by the for-profit meltdown.
Many are aware of the rising default rates among those with student loans, the highest in two decades, the sixth straight year of their increase. But not all know which colleges have these problems.
USA Today notes that there are 117 for-profit institutions with higher default rates than graduation rates. The Wall Street Journal reported that for-profit colleges claim that they are serving lower-income students and working adults, which explains their higher default rates. But the Wall Street Journal also found the following:
"Students who took out government loans to pay for their education at for-profit colleges had a 21% default rate in the first three years they were required to make payments, about three times the level of four-year public and nonprofit institutions."
Market Watch recently reported that a third of all private colleges are about to go under, unable to keep up with their for-profit college competitors. The term "return on investment" was mentioned, as a standard, but nowhere was the concept applied to the for-profit institutions. Sweet Briar was mentioned seven times. Nowhere in the story are the woes of Corinthian and the University of Phoenix even noted.
A colleague in academia brings up Sweet Briar College on a frequent basis, concerned that it's fall might be the demise of small colleges everywhere. Will it be the death of the liberal arts institution?
"What about Corinthian Colleges?" I asked him.
He gave me a puzzled expression. "Who are they? What's the story behind them?"
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.