Here’s Why Trade Schools Continue to Suck So Badly

For-profit colleges—aka trade schools—have a terrible track record. On average, their students rack up tons of debt and very few of them ever graduate. So why is it so hard to do something about them? Henry Farrell asks Suzanne Mettler about the politics of these schools:

Democrats worried about poverty used to defend for-profit colleges against fiscally conservative Republicans. Now Republicans (together with a few Democrats) are defending for-profit colleges against Democrats and reformers. Why did the partisan politics of for-profit education change so dramatically over a couple of decades?

During the Reagan Administration, Secretary of Education William Bennett criticized the for-profits as “diploma mills designed to trick the poor into taking on federally-backed debt,” and in 1990, Sens. Bob Dole and Phil Gramm introduced legislation to regulate them. Since the mid-1990s, however, GOP critics vanished after some party leaders began to champion the for-profits as a private-sector alternative to the higher education establishment. Given the dynamics of rising partisan polarization, the rank-and-file quickly fell in line. Some Democrats now seek to represent constituents who have been taken advantage of by such schools and incurred unpayable debts, but others continue to defend them.

Lovely, isn’t it? Democrats were finally ready to concede a point to Republicans, but apparently the horror of bipartisan agreement was too much for them. Still, I suppose there was never any real prospect of agreement anyway. I imagine that Republicans merely wanted to axe federal funding and let it go at that, while Democrats probably wanted to make for-profit schools perform better. The fundamental chasm between wanting to help poor people and not caring about poor people was undoubtedly never in any danger of being bridged.