About 19 million students attend U.S. higher education institutions. Institutions with a for-profit tax status educate 2 million of these students. Since the election of President Barack Obama in November 2008, media portrayals of for-profits have seen violent swings among neutral, positive, and even intensely negative views. Two sets of forces have been at work behind the scenes. An all-out war between for-profit institutions of higher education and U.S. government forces determined to control them. In a sense, this war is symptomatic of the great divide in the U.S. society between conservative and progressive thought.
Conservatives are willing to give people a chance to succeed, though they seem less sympathetic to the plight of those who fail. In the language of this war, they support for-profits and their mission of providing a chance of success for lower-income, less-prepared students. However, they lack suggestions for how to address the debt load borne by those who do not succeed. However, progressives trust government nonprofit entities much more than private for-profits of any kind—including and especially higher education institutions. In the language of this war, they desire to protect low-performing students from for-profit predators at any and all costs. But they lack perspectives on enabling students to make their own choices about where and whether to pursue college education.