For-Profit Colleges as Benefit Corporations: Where’s the School Spirit?

rasmussen-collegeFor-profit colleges are a $25 billion industry that gets no respect. They claim just 5 percent of the $500 billion Americans spend every year on higher education. Their critics call them “dropout factories” that burden students with debt and get billions in federal and state support while returning little value.

In the last few years, six for-profit colleges have re-chartered themselves to become benefit corporations, with a dual mission to pursue a public benefit while also making a profit. Are they greenwashingB Labs, the independent social auditing firm that awards B Corp Certification and also promotes the movement for chartered benefit corporations, doesn’t think so. But changing that image might take a while.

Critics of for-profit education cite a 2012 report by former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, which analyzed 30 for-profit colleges and found that their associate’s degrees cost four times as much as did similar degrees from public schools. Harkin also found that 63 percent of students enrolled in associate programs at for-profits in 2008-09 had dropped out a year later. The expenses and yields for other degrees were also poor in comparison to public and not-for-profit schools.

Two years ago, B Labs convened a diverse group of educators to develop specific social auditing standards for higher education. The group released the standards last September. A few weeks later, Laureate Education and Alliant University passed the audit to become the first for-profit colleges that are both benefit corporations and Certified B Corps.

“People say that for-profit colleges cannot keep students at the center of their operations, but the benefit corporation structure requires that they do,” says Dan Osusky, a standards manager at B Labs. “The key to making this succeed is getting colleges to publish measures of accountability and performance.”

Other for-profit colleges are talking the talk. “We’re a 115-year-old company, and being a public benefit corporation is in our DNA,” says Trenda Boyum-Breen, president of Rasmussen College, a regionally accredited institution serving 14,000 students online and at 24 campuses. It grants degrees in business, nursing and other job-oriented disciplines.

About 75 percent of Rasmussen students are women and over the age of 25. More than a fifth are African American. “For-profit colleges have a powerful opportunity to encourage upward social mobility,” Osusky of B Labs says.

Rasmussen registered as a public-benefit corporation (PBC) in Delaware two years ago. “We saw it as a way to distinguish ourselves,” says Dr. Boyum-Breen, president of Rasmussen, who is also a first-generation college graduate. “A PBC is the sweet-spot that allows us to deliver education for the public good while also having the efficiency and flexibility of a for-profit business.”

That all sounds good. But Rasmussen is privately owned, so it doesn’t release information on its revenues, its expenses or the names of major shareholders. Boyum-Breen says the college is consulting with B Lab, but it hasn’t yet been certified. And Delaware law only requires that PBCs give their shareholders a statement regarding the progress of their social goals once every two years. The statement does not have to be done by an independent third party, and it doesn’t have to be public.

“This is a controversial industry, and some for-profit colleges have questionable reputations,” says Osusky, who adds that the best way forward is for the industry to adopt specific performance standards, greater legal accountability and public transparency. “Controversial industries are where the need is greatest to distinguish between good and bad actors,” he continues.

Boyum-Breen, who became Rasmussen’s president 10 months ago, says the college’s directors will see its first internally-produced social statement at their meeting in March. She says that parts of the statement will also be released to the public and that the college will continue to work with B Labs.

She is also pushing changes that promise to lower the cost of a degree. More than three quarters of her students have already attended college somewhere else without graduating. Rasmussen’s Flex Choice, which combines classwork with online study to allow students to pass course units based on their prior experiences, was expanded to all degree programs in January.

“There’s a great opportunity here for a business to generate public good,” she says. “An organization’s tax status doesn’t determine whether it is good or not.”

Maybe so. But you can’t assess a company’s performance until you measure it, and you can’t trust those measurements unless someone or something holds the company accountable.

The First Benefit Corporation IPO Is Coming, And That’s A Big Deal

Laureate-04Get ready for the first-ever public stock offering by a chartered benefit corporation. This ain’t no friendly neighborhood organic coffee roaster, either. Laureate Education promises to operate as a triple-bottom-line business, but this is a much bigger, more complicated deal.

Laureate is the world’s largest for-profit operator of online and campus-based higher education. It owns, controls, or manages 88 institutions that enroll more than one million students, 90 percent of whom live outside the United States. It has been growing rapidly and in 2014, its revenues exceeded $4.4 billion. It’s a 16-year-old company but it announced its new charter as a Delaware Benefit Corporation just four months ago, on the same day it registered for its IPO.

Laureate’s current owners aren’t the kind of folks you’ll find at a typical B Corp meet-up. Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR) one of the world’s biggest private equity firms, owns most of its stock.   Point72, another venture capital behemoth, owns a big chunk. So does the International Finance Corporation, which is the private-sector arm of the World Bank.

Last year, the first Certified B Corp held an IPO when Etsy went public. But Etsy doesn’t have a dual purpose written into its corporate charter. At least, not yet.

KKR’s leaders are Henry Kravis and his cousin George R. Roberts, who gained fame for their scorched-earth takeover of Nabisco in the late 1980s. They’re old-school corporate raiders. Now they own a benefit corporation, and that could be a big deal.

Laureate registered as a benefit corporation so IPO investors will know that it takes its social mission seriously, according to founder and CEO Doug Becker. “We recognize that some investors in public companies are highly focused on short-term results,” he writes in the company’s prospectus, “and we hope that it is very clear to them that this is not our approach. With the benefit of a long-term view, we will balance the needs of stockholders with the needs of students, employees, and communities in which we operate, and we believe that this approach will deliver the best results for our investors.”

SEC laws prohibit Becker and KKR from talking about the IPO. But others are taking notice. “KKR could be just the tip of the iceberg,” says Luke Stephan, a partner at Keene Advisors in Newton, MA, a small firm that specializes in advising business owners who are selling their companies. Many Keene clients bring their social consciences to their businesses, and Keene itself is pursuing B Corp certification.

“If the Laureate IPO is successful, it will provide a roadmap for institutional investors, family offices and individual investors who want to invest capital in businesses that generate a good return and make valuable contributions to society at large,” Stephan writes. “And it will provide a strong counterpoint to skeptics that believe that businesses cannot access institutional capital unless they focus exclusively on maximizing value for shareholders.”

“Laureate is a real validation of the value side of the equation,” says Rick Alexander, legal advisor to B Lab. “About $6 trillion in investment funds are earmarked for social impact in some way. That’s a huge target. But benefit corporations are a new idea, and a lot of investment professionals are not convinced that they will give a good return. Many of them just don’t know about us.

“KKR is a high-profile company, so the Laureate IPO could convince a lot of people that they’re safe to invest in. The essence of the idea is that by serving the interests of stakeholders as well as shareholders, you create value that companies focused only on their shareholders do not create.”

Switching its status might also help Laureate answer the many critics of for-profit higher education. According to a 2012 US Senate committee report that examined 30 companies, including Laureate, the sector spent an average of 41 percent of its revenue on marketing, advertising, recruiting and admissions, and profit distribution. They spent just 18 percent on instruction. The report argues that making federal grants and loans to students at for-profit colleges is a bad deal, both for the students and the government.

Alumni of Walden University, which is owned by Laureate and has many campuses in the United States, have accumulated the second-highest amount of federal loans of any school in the country, according to a 2014 study by the Brookings Institution. And only 44 percent of its undergraduates had started to repay their loans three years after leaving the school, a level far below the national average.

Laureate is not the first for-profit school to become a benefit corporation. But it is the first to sign up for B Lab’s rigorous social audit program, which it passed in 2015. It also participates in B Lab’s Higher Education Standards Working Group. So, is Laureate using B Lab to clean up its image while it prepares to go public? Sure. And is that a bad thing? Only if it doesn’t walk the talk.