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.