Social Injustices: Closing Corinthian, Coring College

Peter Wood

The fig farmer turned Biblical prophet Amos is enjoying renewed celebrity these days for his pronouncements against the rich. Israel was at the height of its national prosperity in the mid-8th century B.C. when Amos voiced God’s displeasure with “those who lie upon beds of ivory,” and indulged in other forms of conspicuous consumption. “You who trample upon the needy” were promised a grim end. 

In today’s progressive theology, Amos has become one of the key voices of “social justice.” He is also, it happens, the first Biblical prophet to put his visions into writing. Amos reappears in the public square every January when, in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., we hear quotations from MLK’s “I’ve Been to the Mountain” sermon at in Memphis the night before his assassination. King intoned:

Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and saith, “When God speaks who can but prophesy?” Again with Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Social justice is, of course, a term with a great canopy of meanings. It spreads like one of Amos’s sycamore fig trees over a wide expanse. While many of its advocates take their warrant from more recent prophets such as John Rawls and know little about the Old Testament versions, there is a germ of Amos even in the most seemingly secular pronouncements against the rich for their mistreatment of the poor. 

Social justice being such a malleable term, I want to see whether it can help us understand two seemingly unrelated matters in higher education right now. One is the closing of Corinthian Colleges; the other is the use of Common Core tests in college placement. Corinthian Colleges was a large for-profit institution with campuses across the U.S. and Canada. It operated in an intellectual sector that attracts students from near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder who want to acquire “career-oriented” skills in areas ranging from motorcycle maintenance to managing health care records. 

The Fall of Corinthian

In many cases, the students who enrolled in Corinthian made a poor choice. They could have acquired the same level of skills in less expensive ways, such as through a community college training program. Corinthian had a reputation for gaming the federal student loan system by persuading its customers to load up on federal debt. 

Corinthian, however, has bit the dust. Its demise comes at the hands of government. In February, the Ontario government suspended Corinthian’s license, thereby shutting down all its Canadian operations. Last year the U.S. the Department of Education began choking off the access of Corinthian students to federal loans. And on April 27, Corinthian announced that it was giving up. It was immediately closing its “remaining 28 campuses” and casting loose its 16,000 students. It had already, last year, agreed to relinquish 85 other campuses. Then in April the Department of Education imposed a $30 million fine on Corinthian for supposedly misstating its job placement statistics. Corinthian had other troubles as well, including a lawsuit from California Attorney General Kamala Harris. 

The end of a bad actor? The Wall Street Journal didn’t think so. It compared the demise of Corinthian at the hands of federal regulators to a government drone strike. A previously viable educational institution was destroyed by federal action over what amounted to rather trivial violations—in job placement rates.

How inaccurate were the numbers that Corinthian reported on the placement of graduates in fields related to their areas of study? The federal fine was for 947 alleged cases of misreporting at the twelve campuses comprising Corinthian’s Heald College in California, Hawaii and Oregon. Corinthian’s spokesman called the allegations “highly questionable” but the company decided it had to no practical way to fight back. 

I’ve tried to make sense of the statistic of “947” cases. The number merges several years of graduates as well as certificate, associate, and bachelor degree programs. None of the Department of Education letters and statements translate the number of cases into a rate of malfeasance. A letter of April 14, from Robin S. Minor, Acting Director of DOE’s Administrative Actions and Appeals Services Group to the president of Corinthian Colleges, Inc., however, includes a chart that contrasts the placement rates reported by Corinthian to the “adjusted” placement rates calculated by the federal bureaucrats. We learn, for example, that in 2011 Heald College in Hayward, California graduated 34 individuals with associate’s degrees in Information Technology Network Systems Administration. Corinthian reported that all of them were placed in employment in their field. The Department of Education said, no, only 82 percent of them were, i.e. 4 of the 32 were employed in jobs that didn’t count. 

The federal data is all of this sort. The single worst case in the list was a group of 48 students who received associates degrees in Medical Office Administration from Heald College in Hayward in 2011. The college said all of them were placed. The Department of Education said only 38 percent were placed. But generally the discrepancies are in the range of one to four students from each cohort. 

These are the sorts of infractions which, if substantiated, one might expect would result in some sort of routine administrative penalty, such as a modest fine. But the Department of Education proceeded to the equivalent of an institutional death penalty—a $30 million fine. 

For comparison, think of law school graduates. According to American Bar Association data, some 43 percent of graduates of the 50 top law schools in 2013 had, by 2014, not found a job in the legal profession. Moreover, many law schools attempted to juice the numbers in their favor by funding their own temporary positions for some of their otherwise unemployed graduates and then counting them as working lawyers. 

The Department of Education, however, seems to find no fault with either the low placement rate of law schools or their mischief with the data. No one is talking about shuttering elite law schools for misfeasance that would appear many times worse than Corinthian’s.

We might call this selective enforcement of the law, except that the law that actually clobbered Corinthian doesn’t apply to most law schools or to most colleges and universities. The job placement rule was a regulation promulgated by the Department of Education for the precise purpose of lowering the boom on for-profit entities such as Corinthian. So it is not so much a matter of selective enforcement of the law as selective invention of the law. 

I don’t have any particular fondness for Corinthian or its business model. It was, pretty clearly, an institution designed to be a parasite on the federal student loan system. But there is this to say: there are legions of not-for-profit colleges and universities that are no less parasitical. The student loan system in the U.S. is extolled by its supporters for making college “more affordable and more accessible.” But as economists have frequently observed, this system is really a hidden subsidy to colleges and universities, and it operates in such a way as to drive up tuitions and other costs. 

Corinthian got into this game by providing educational services to people whose academic profiles and personal circumstances gave them few opportunities to pursue higher education. By shutting down Corinthian, the Department of Education effectively closed off an avenue of socio-economic advancement for the poor. Moreover, the Department of Education did this to protect a system that advantages the middle class and the relatively prosperous colleges and universities that have institutionalized their income stream from federal student loans. 

I realize that for-profit colleges and universities are pariahs in the contemporary kingdom of American higher education. But Corinthian is clearly being treated as a scapegoat to deflect attention from the larger scandal of how our system of higher education preys on the financial naiveté of both students and their parents.  

Common Core Goes to College

A year ago on Minding the Campus, I wrote about how the Common Core K-12 State Standards threaten to lower the quality of American higher education. The Common Core, of course, is ballyhooed as doing the opposite: as making all our high school graduates “college and career ready.” The reality is that the states had to agree to accept Common Core in lieu of their own admissions standards at state colleges and universities. And Common Core standards are purposely low. Yes, they are meant to create something like a national curriculum, but they get there by setting standards an inch or so above rock bottom.

At the time I wrote, the consequences for colleges had not yet come into focus for the higher education establishment. But in the last few weeks, things have changed. Faced with locked-in mediocrity among potential students, many colleges are now…adjusting.

The University of Delaware and three other Delaware colleges announced in mid-April that they would use the Common Core test produced by Smarter Balance “in lieu of separate placement tests.”  Success on the Common Core is thus now officially accepted in the state as “a good measure of college readiness.” As I said in March 2014, this means the students who pass the Common Core tests will be exempt from taking remedial courses. Or as the press release puts it, they can “avoid taking costly remedial classes that [do] not count towards graduation.”

The reason remedial courses do not count towards graduation is that such courses aim to bring students up to the starting line of college-level instruction. Common Core effectively moves the starting line back to the level of the students rather than insisting that students get themselves up to the original starting line. That, in turn, will eventually re-architect most of the undergraduate curriculum, which will also have to be adjusted downward to take account of the lower skill levels of the students who have bypassed remedial education.

Are things really that bad? Maybe not. Colleges and universities could set the “cut scores” on Common Core examinations high enough to filter out students who passed the tests by the skin of their teeth. But even the students who pass Common Core tests with flying colors will bring to college a dumbed-down K-12 education. The Common Core is wrapped in gaudy slogans about educational excellence, but its two foci—English language arts and mathematics—are exercises in setting the bar comfortably low. 

Delaware is not alone in its newfound enthusiasm for Coring college standards. Ashley Smith on Inside Higher Ed provides a roundup of what is happening in Colorado, California, Oregon, South Dakota, and other states. And Lindsey Tepe at Ed Central is celebrating “nearly 200 college and universities throughout the country” that are on board with Smarter Balance Common Core tests as a reliable measure of college readiness. Tepe is the author of a New America Foundation “policy brief” issued last year, Common Core Goes to College, that looked forward eagerly to these developments.

I have written at length about these matters elsewhere. I bring them up again for a narrower point. The Common Core is a social experiment that benefits elites at the expense of the poor. 

The Common Core, of course, is artfully framed in egalitarian rhetoric so as to seem to be a project that helps those who have been disadvantaged by inferior schools. But is it really to the advantage of children from impoverished backgrounds to have local control of schools stripped away in favor of authority vested in national institutions and private corporations such as Smarter Balance? Is it in the interest of the students from impoverished backgrounds to have the standards set so low that a high school diploma does not signify anything beyond basic skills? And do graduates benefit by being certified as “college ready” when they are not? 

Students attending “good” public schools will find their way around the Common Core, perhaps with enrichment courses and good parental intervention. But kids from impoverished backgrounds are once again being used as props in the game played over their heads. The elites who favor the Common Core have complicated motives that combine large financial gains (textbooks, tests), professional advancement, political power, and prestige. The students who take Common Core, by contrast get a mediocre education (at best) and a deceptively easy path to college. The deception will play out in due time. It’s the children of the elite who will be able to top off their devalued college degrees with graduate school. The others—I was going to say they can go to Corinthian. 

Social Justice Redux

“Those who lie upon beds of ivory” are sometimes to be found in and around the towers made of the same material. These days the rich who trample the needy seldom consider themselves especially privileged. More often, they imagine themselves on the side of the weak and vulnerable and are oblivious to how their decisions punish the people they imagine they are helping.

It is an old story. Altruism is often more a pose than a reality. Corinthian Colleges, whatever its flaws, served a population that the higher education establishment has little use for. The Common Core further shrinks the educational horizons of students from impoverished backgrounds. Social justice, if we wish to call it that, isn’t really on the side of these self-anointed guardians. Amos’ mighty stream of righteousness isn’t rolling down these channels. Those storm clouds are breaking on an altogether different mountain.

Image: The Catholic Catalogue

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