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For-profit college VP named to student aid panel

Gov. Jerry Brown this week named an East Bay woman to the California Student Aid Commission, but an article I read recently makes me wonder whether he’s appointed a fox to guard the henhouse.

Brown appointed Terri Bishop, 58, of Lafayette, to the California Student Aid Commission, the stated mission of which is “making education beyond high school financially accessible to all Californians. The appointment requires Senate confirmation and the compensation is $100 per diem. Bishop is a Democrat.

According to its website, the commission is “the principal state agency responsible for administering financial aid programs for students attending public and private universities, colleges, and vocational schools in California” and “provides financial aid policy analysis and leadership, in partnership with California’s colleges, universities, financial institutions, and financial aid associations.” It administers the Cal Grant program, which provides public money to students for use at colleges and universities within the state; the program has suffered grievous cuts in recent budgets, even as public university and community college tuitions have increased.

Bishop has worked at the Apollo Group – parent company of the University of Phoenix, a for-profit system of more than 200 campuses plus online learning – since 1997, including serving most recently as executive vice president of academic strategy and senior advisor to the chief executive officer. From 1989 to 1997, she was senior vice president of the Online Campus at the University of Phoenix.

Now, I don’t know Bishop, and I have no reason to doubt her or her motivations on an individual, personal or professional basis. But the hair on the back of my neck rose a bit when I read about this appointment, as I recalled an article in the October issue of Harper’s which cast the University of Phoenix and schools like it in a not-so-favorable light.

From that article:

Currently, proprietary institutions educate about one in ten American college students while taking in nearly a quarter of all Title IV funding – $4 billion in Pell Grants and $20 billion in guaranteed loans in 2009.

All this government funding is notable because enrolling at for-profit colleges turns out to be a terrible deal for most students. Almost three fifths drop out without a degree within a year, and virtually all take on debt to help pay for their education. They default on their loans at about twice the rate of students at public colleges and universities and three times the rate of students at private ones. Those who graduate often wind up in low-paying jobs, doing tasks with minimal connection to their degrees.

The article also notes that University of Phoenix gets about 88 percent of its revenue from federal funding.

Those one or two who get degrees and otherwise would have been shut out of the system may justify the cost of letting schools like Phoenix occupy such a prominent place in our educational landscape. What isn’t clear is how many Americans understand that this is the bargain we’ve signed up for: throwing enormous resources at places like Phoenix so that they can graduate one or two out of every twenty entering freshmen.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.