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Yes, This University Of Phoenix Ad Lies About Unemployment Situation to Sell Kids Expensive, Worthless Degrees

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Matt Yglesias uses his perch at Slate for the important work of criticizing a tweet I made a few days ago about a University of Phoenix ad I saw. Yglesias makes a distinction between saying on a macro level that there exists a mismatch in skills for employees in America, and saying on a micro level that it might be good for unemployed Americans to go get some new skills to make themselves more attractive to employers. This lets the U of Phoenix off the hook for “suggesting to potential customers that they could get themselves out of the unemployment hole by going to school and upgrading their skills.”

I don’t think Matt watched the ad. Here’s the copy for the first half:

Right now, there are 3.7 million unfilled jobs in this country. That means there are 3.7 million opportunities for the right person to step up and start a new career. There’s a gap in America between the skills we have and the skills employers need. Solving that is our highest priority.

This is all just false, and it’s the rhetorical underpinning for why you need to sign up with the University of Phoenix. The 3.7 million unfilled jobs are still elevated from the historical mean, but they are down from well over 6 million at the end of the recession in mid-2009. What’s more, that includes every job in America, from skilled to unskilled labor. And if you consider the 13 million currently unemployed, and recognize that millions of these people include those with college and post-graduate degrees, you get less of a sense that this 3.7 million number matters.

Moreover, we know that the skills mismatch myth is not at all seen in the data. America has a demand problem, period, full stop. Millions of people are being held back because of that gap in demand.

On the question of whether it might be a good idea in the micro sense to go get some skills, I don’t think you can divorce that message from the messenger. Matt talks about how there are no unemployed surgeons. There are also no University of Phoenix-accredited surgeons. The University of Phoenix is a for-profit college that doesn’t offer skills as much as it offers a chance for their executives to get rich, regardless of the futures of their customers. Countless reports, including one from the Senate HELP Committee this July, have documented the failure of for-profit colleges to prepare their students for a career path. The colleges focus on recruiting and marketing – with ads like this – and lure unsuspecting customers into the school, getting them to use federal student loans to pay it off. They then provide programs of middling to poor quality, and an after-market placement service that does almost nothing. None of this matters to for-profit colleges who are getting fat off taxpayer revenue from the federally subsidized loans that are their lifeblood.

“American taxpayers are the single biggest investor in for-profit colleges, yet the government that holds their trust has little ability to ensure that they get the return on investment they deserve: educational and career success for the students who enroll,” the report said. “Congress must put in place a much more rigorous regulatory structure that incentivizes the sector to make the financial investments necessary to result in higher student success.”

The report in particular found that the University of Phoenix has no career placement or services staff for its 425,000 students. This is the company saying that the key to getting past the non-existent skills mismatch is an expensive degree from the University of Phoenix. The school has been in near-constant trouble with the law for the last decade over its recruiting practices. This hasn’t stopped them from underwriting media events like today’s “Education Nation” summit, at which both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will speak.

So when some individual lies about the skills mismatch to nudge an individual into seeking more education, that’s one thing. When it’s the University of Phoenix, they’re taking a discredited theory and applying it to encourage students to mount up debt to get a worthless degree that will not help them in their futures.

UPDATE: I should be sure not to leave out of the for-profit college discussion Kaplan University, owned by the same parent company as Yglesias’ employer, Slate. They were also probed in the Senate HELP Commmittee report and showed just as damning conduct.

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David Dayen

David Dayen