AUDIE CORNISH, host: Another growing trend in the world of education has been the explosion in the number of students headed to for-profit colleges; schools like DeVry, Kaplan and the University of Phoenix. Lately, these institutions have been subject to scrutiny and new regulations for their allegedly deceptive recruiting tactics and the high number of federal loan defaults among their students. Christopher Beha, an associate editor for Harper's magazine, wanted to see what the for-profit college experience was like from a student's perspective. So, he discreetly enrolled at the University of Phoenix, the country's largest for-profit university, and he wrote about it for the magazine's October issue. His experience is the basis for a critique, not just of the for-profit educational industry but of what he calls America's college for all mentality. Christopher Beha's article is titled "Leveling the Field: What I Learned from For-Profit Education," and he joins us from our studios in New York. Christopher Beha, welcome.
CHRISTOPHER BEHA: Thank you.
CORNISH: We should point out that you do, in fact, have a bachelor's degree, and that for the purposes of this article you lied to the admissions counselor at the University of Phoenix when you enrolled.
BEHA: I did, yes. And I should say that I ultimately came clean to all of my classmates and to my teacher and did not include any students who were not comfortable being included.
CORNISH: What was the admissions process like? And what did you need to get into the school?
BEHA: You need to show up and, in my case, write a check. In the case of most of the students, you need to be eligible for government funding - for Pell grants and for subsidized government loans, which means you do have to have a high school diploma or equivalency.
CORNISH: And that is an important part of the funding structure of these schools, correct?
BEHA: Absolutely. Phoenix gets about 89 percent of its revenue from the federal government.
CORNISH: Now, what did you think you were going to find and what were you looking for going into this situation?
BEHA: To be honest, I wasn't sure what I was going to find, which was part of the point. There's been a lot of talk about for-profit education recently because the industry has been growing so much and some of their practices have come into question. But there has been very little talk about what actually goes on in the classroom.
CORNISH: Tell us a little bit more about your classmates.
BEHA: There were a few people who had started degrees elsewhere, but my class was mostly students with less than one year of college experience, if any. They tended to have pretty broad ideas of what a college education was going to do for them, which is to say they weren't people who couldn't get the next promotion without a degree or people who needed a certain credential for some work they were doing. They had a vague sense that they wanted to improve their lives, and they had been told by University of Phoenix recruiters, among, I'm sure, many other people, that the best way to do that was to get a college degree.
CORNISH: Now, in your article, you essentially argue that it's not a good value; that it's not a good deal for the students in terms of what they're paying. It's not a good deal for us in terms of what we're paying as taxpayers. And can you describe what you mean by that? 'Cause I'm sure lots of people who are paying tuition bills right now at public universities and private colleges feel like they're getting ripped off. So, how is this any worse?
BEHA: Sure. Yeah, you know, there's a big argument going on about whether a college degree actually pays for itself in terms of your increase in lifetime earnings. And that's a very complicated question. And a lot of people who know this stuff better than I do disagree on it. But the short answer is that it depends where your college degree is coming from and how much you're paying for it. What doesn't seem in doubt to me is that for society as a whole, this is not a good investment of our resources at a time when resources are very scarce.
CORNISH: Of course, I mean, that's very easy for you to say - you have a degree, right?
CORNISH: I mean, what do you say to all these students who are trying to make it?
BEHA: Well, I think everybody...
CORNISH: And who equate having a degree with making it.
BEHA: Well, I mean, that's the point right there, is that I think we need to change that attitude. I certainly believe in access to higher education for all. I'm not suggesting that we ought to track people out of degree programs. But I think we ought to offer alternatives - vocational training, other kinds of postsecondary school that isn't geared towards a degree. And I think these would be more valuable for a lot of people, and I think frankly people would prefer that option if they had it.
CORNISH: Christopher Beha is an associate editor for Harper's magazine. His article, "Leveling the Field: What I Learned from For-Profit Education," appears in the October issue. Chris, thank you so much.
BEHA: Thank you.
CORNISH: We asked the University of Phoenix for a response. It reads in part: The reality Americans face today is simple. Jobs today require higher education, yet more than 80 million working Americans don't have a bachelor's degree and 50 million adults have never even tried to earn one. Clearly, there is no single solution to meeting this need. For some students, traditional colleges and universities are the best path; for others - working adults who support a family, for example - another path must be sought.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.