Despite the often gloomy forecasts for mass media, there are times when traditional media do the best job of starting conversations among a broad range of people. The PBS/Frontline “College Inc.” broadcast on May 8th appears to have played this role. The Frontline episode – if you missed it – addressed the rise of for-profit colleges and universities in the U.S. Although less critical than many anticipated, it clearly sought to defend the status quo and alarm viewers. (This is the formula of most investigative television programming, of course.)

One particularly interesting contribution to the discussion is found in the Chronicle in response to a fine article on the episode by Kevin Carey.  Dr. Chandru Rajam does a fine job of placing the rise of for-profits in a broader economic context, then proposes six changes. With the permission of Dr. Rajam (George Washington University), I have posted it below.

During the dot-com frenzy of the late 1990s and early 2000s, some saner and wiser observers were cautioning others that the adjective electronic in the phrase “e-business” was a transient phenomenon and that, after the e-dust settles, all of us would simply take e-mail, e-business, e-commerce etc so for granted that we would drop that adjective and simply assume that all manner of business will be conducted as a blend between the physical (atoms) and informational (bytes). In a similar vein, learning today has largely become blended, as face-to-face instruction is increasingly complemented and supplemented by interaction in the electronic medium.

A parallel exists between the above and the twin-adjectives of non-profit and for-profit. As for-profit higher-ed sector becomes a substantial part of the landscape, these prefixes and adjectives will go away. The distinction is already becoming moot. If payroll, technology, e-mail hosting, the cafeteria, book-store, estate-management and numerous other activities are already being outsourced to for-profit vendors and service providers, then the convergence mentioned above is well underway. The same debates were seen in healthcare. While the hospitals themselves might have been non-profits, every supplier and partner they do “business” with (suppliers of pharmaceuticals, linen, waste-disposal, medical equipment, insurance etc) are for-profit entities. Clearly, the proportion of economic activities that are carried out under the for-profit roof has gone up. Ask any administrator in these settings why they chose to outsource these activities and s/he is bound to cite the proverbial make-or-buy calculus. There is no escaping the fact that EFFICIENCY (doing more with less) and EFFECTIVENESS (made possible by specialized expertise embodied by dedicated suppliers) are what drive the decisions to “buy” rather than “make.” In a world increasingly characterized by specialized expertise and economies of scale, we must expect a greater tendency toward outsourcing to specialists, while retaining only the core of what the principal organization does best or is meant to accomplish.

Rather than debate the moot distinction between for-profits and non-profits, the Obama Administration would be better off orchestrating a new regulatory infrastructure that achieved the following objectives:

(1) raise the level of accountability (use not just gainful employment, but other criteria as well) for ALL institutions;

(2) encourage the media, NGOs, foundations and employers to collaborate to come up with more meaningful, subtle and granular measures of institutional effectiveness than so far attempted;

(3) re-conceptualize the mission of the DoE to include a more sophisticated understanding of higher education, as opposed to the primary focus on K-12, which although more pressing, runs the risk of crowding out higher-ed from the national agenda;

(4) broaden the definitions of what constitutes malfeasance on the part of education providers (whether they are non-profits or for-profits).

(5) tighten the definition of achievement and hold ALL institutions to those definitions and standards. (You will get a lot of push-back from colleges that constructs like Critical Thinking are difficult to assess, but these are just cop-outs and excuses. Insist on the creation of cross-constituency panels consisting of representatives from employers, accreditors and academics and mandate them to agree on the set of competencies, by discipline, that students should possess at the time of graduation. Use independent panels (with a similar profile as the above, but with different individuals) to assess student competencies. Combine high-stakes standardized assessment WITH course-embedded, in-context assessment to provide for both comparability (relative to peers) AND granular/ contextually-grounded assessment. TIE FUNDING TO INSTITUTIONAL ACHIEVEMENT ON THESE ASSESSMENTS. STIR, SERVE, REFINE, STIR, SERVE, REFINE —REPEAT!

(6) Most traditional institutions take in higher-quality students and then add very little value (relative to resources used). So, they end up looking a lot better than their for-profit counterparts. So, the Feds should insist on VALUE-ADDED measures of student achievement, so as to account for the differences in demographics and incoming student-quality that institutions get to work with.

6 thoughts on ““College Inc” – Generating Conversations

  1. excellent post. the show was fascinating for the dimensions it laid out, with each of them neutralizing the other so that it was almost impossible to come away with the idea that any position was right/wrong.

    they simply just are what they are.

    the point about student debt being the next ‘bubble’ in economy was particularly striking and figures into our take at http://www.sandboxnetwork.org

    thanks for posting this and for the high quality content that pushes out from this forum.

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  2. Didn’t see the broadcast, being the ‘wrong’ side of the Atlantic. However the concept of ‘Value Added’ as described by Chandru has been in the UK for a long time, and makes complete sense when deciding where to invest tax dollars. Trouble is, over here it has never been applied. The ‘end result’ model favoured by the elite institutions still holds sway, on the implied threat that the country needs the best no matter how it’s developed. The fact that the political elite come almost exclusively from these high-end institutions means the value-added model is merely talked about. Perhaps the current crisis and need to cut public spending might focus minds?

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  3. Very good post. I watched “College, Inc.” online, and Dr. Rajam’s statements resonate quite well.

    I am a graduate student in an online program at a public state university. I did not quite follow why the segment was presenting ‘online learning’ as something that only for-profit colleges are exploiting. Although I have never been a student at a for-profit institution, I doubt that the delivery format is that much better, or that much worse than our for-profit counterparts. In fact, it may be a bit better in that public universities are suffering a lot from budget cuts; restricting the amount of money available to invest in the top-of-the-line software and hardware needed for online learning.

    I also did not quite follow the reiteration of the idea that for-profit schools are serving a niche market. How so? Most community colleges have an open admissions policy; with the limiting factor being space (which was in the segment I know). So the success of for-profit schools is really being fueled by the declining support of public higher educational institutions. The solution to keeping for-profit schools in check is not in Washington; but on the local and state levels.

    And finally the problems with student loans are no way limited to for-profit schools. They may have a higher default percentage, but this is most definitely because the admission standards are lower. The cost of going to almost any college has skyrocketed over the past 20 years. It is unfair to single out for-profit schools and make only them accountable for whether or not their graduates can secure jobs upon graduation.

    I agree that we need to re-adjust our thinking when it comes to college. There are horrible educations to be had in big state universities; you have some brillant individuals who hold UofP degrees. In both cases, you rarely emerge from the commencement ceremony the world’s best worker. That comes from traits that you cannot totally learn in any college.

    I can understand that not everyone has the grades, GPA, etc. to get into Harvard or even their own state’s flagship public universities. But we need to stay focused on the prime objective: education. Make sure that if you are conferring degrees, they actually mean something at the end of the day.

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  4. We can debate until we loose all out vital signs whether the education in in the USA bad or not, the answer is it is nothing but a fraud and money-eating machine.
    Majority of College have outdated degrees that either have no market value or do not provide any employment.
    Yet, the College admissions representatives and their Department Chairpersons lure students into believing that they have strong educational background to lead students into the bright future. In reality, their degrees (e.g. Business , Computer sciences majors, etc) are outdated, extremely underdeveloped and are lacking the right staff to teach those courses.
    This is not an education. It is more a profit making machine. While upper College administrators make “sky is a limit” money, students getting into financial debt, and graduating to a unemployment. The reason is simply, they do not have any subsequent academic preparation to perform well on the jobs they have been “trained” for.
    Some of the subjects are completely outdated or simply unneeded. They made as a requirement to keep their College Professors employed. Hence, the courses add nothing toward the knowledge of the hands on experience.(e.g. Anthropology course -Sexual Life of Venezuela Aborigines)-that is being taught for the Nursing students. Of course without knowledge of their sexual traditions, how can one acquire “good Nursing skills?”
    The major problem is not ” how much we learned, rather how much we cover the content of textbook”. There are unreasonable expectations that are being placed in terms of time needed to comprehend material and get it into the long -time memory.
    This trend creates an immeasurable stress for students resulting in cheating, just to survive in the course.
    Spare me your debates! Even some of the third world countries(e.g. Philippines, India, etc) prepare a real workforce that comes into USA and gets jobs in Nursing, Medicine, Computers, etc.

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