The “Pain Funnel” and the Harkin Report on For-Profit Schools

By Mike Konczal |

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) has finally released his major report on for-profit schools, the result of two years of studies and investigations. It’s a telling look into the numbers in the for-profit college industry and the growing future of higher learning amid a collapsing public sector. It gives us a reason to reexamine some of the deregulation that took place around this industry during the George W. Bush years. The report also also clarifies one of my new favorite metaphors, and that is the role of the “pain funnel” in our new system of higher educaiton.

There’s some great metaphors for understanding how higher education has been created by the government throughout the years. There’s the “democracy’s college” of the 1862 Morrill Act, which sought to “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life” by making sure public higher education would spread westward across the nation and be broadly accessible to all, including women, not just the rich or connected. There’s the “Master Plan” of California, the culmination of a moderate Whig Republicanism and progressive liberalisms that no longer exist, which guaranteed those who wanted to study would be able to do so in a way that emphasized mobility — one could move up or down in the three-part hierachy of education institutions. And this Master Plan was government planning, an explicit goal to create a certain amount of supply at a center price. 

Instead of government planning, we now have the for-profit industry. And one of the things it brings to the table is its aggressive recruitment techniques, one of which is called the “pain funnel.” The Harkin report uncovered a for-profit recruiter’s handbook from ITT that included this sales technique. As the Harkin Report notes, “After a recruiter located a prospective student’s pain point, the ‘pain funnel’ presented a number of questions that the recruiter can ask that are progressively more hurtful. In ‘Level 1’ a recruiter asks prospective students, ‘tell me more about that’ or ‘give me an example.’ In ‘Level 2’ the recruiter asks ‘What have you tried to do about that?’ The highest level asks a hurtful question to elicit pain.” There’s even a chart of the pain funnel from the recruitment materials:

I bring it up because this pain funnel approach to recruiting higher education students was brought up earlier last year by Harkin, and ITT immediately turned around and denied that it was actual company policy. Harkin’s team went and interviewed the recruiter in question, and she said that “at quarterly district meetings I did pain funnel training for nearly every top recruitment representative, financial aid coordinator, dean, instructor, department chairs, all functional managers, all college directors and the district manager for the entire Southern California District, the largest district in the country… In October 2009, I wrote up a BEST OF THE BEST (BOB) submission to HQ that included the same ‘Pain Funnel and Pain Puzzle’ and how proper usage of this tool can bring a prospect to their inner child, an emotional place intended to have the prospect say yes I will enroll.” Yup.

It’s amazing how quickly we’ve gone from using government resources to enact the democratic visions of the Morrill Act, the GI Bill, and the California Master Plan, three of the greatest pieces of legislation our country has passed, to using government resources to enact a vision premised on eliciting pain. Through a funnel.

Because government is creating this vision. Government resources pay for it all. Eighty-seven percent of revenues at for-profits come from federal or state sources, including student loans and pell grants. Dylan Matthews has more on this. Though they teach around 10 percent of students, they take in about 25 percent of total Department of Education student aid program funds. These numbers are on the rise and show little sign of slowing.

Given that government is funding the basis of this system, what’s the benefit of this privatization of public services and the introduction of the profit motive? Where’s the innovation? The general claim for the privatization of government services is that you can get the same quality for a much cheaper price. The profit motive rewards those who go after inefficiencies, finding ways to make the same thing cheaper. When Mitt Romney praised for-profit colleges as the solution to higher education problems, he explicitly noted that it would “hold down the cost of education.”

But that is a significant failure. For for-profit schools, “Bachelor’s degree programs averaged 20 percent more than the cost of analogous programs at flagship public universities… Associate degree programs averaged four times the cost of degree programs at comparable community colleges… Certificate programs similarly averaged four and a half times the cost of such programs at comparable community colleges.”

It’s at the low end, i.e. community colleges that are particularly hit by state-level austerity, where this is even worse. The report finds that “for comparable diplomas, tuition at for-profit colleges ranges from 2 to 20 times the tuition at local community colleges.” These for-profit schools have worse employment outcomes than community colleges as well. And there’s significant dropout rates. Are there any advantages to us spending our valuable resources this way rather than expanding public community colleges? A former Poet Laureate, Kay Ryan, once said of public community colleges, “I can’t think of a more efficient, hopeful or egalitarian machine, with the possible exception of the bicycle.” Compared with the boiler room techiques and massive debts of the “pain funnel,” I think the bicycle vision is the better one.

Why are we choosing to pay for higher education this way? How do we make sure that the demand for higher education is met? The government took steps to deregulate the way funding goes to for-profit schools under the George W. Bush administration, and the results are a disaster. Meeting the demand for mass higher education after the Civil War has never been a private phenomenon, either for profit or nonprofit. It has fallen to the public sector to ensure broad, accessible higher education for all.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:


Mike Konczal is a Fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, where he works on financial reform, unemployment, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy. His blog, Rortybomb, was named one of the 25 Best Financial Blogs by Time magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rortybomb.