I don’t work at a for-profit university; my time as a faculty member was spent at a traditional, non-profit university. Nor did I attend a for-profit school as a student – having done all my studies at public institutions in Canada and Australia.
And yes, I’ve read the reports and I’ve watched the news reports. I’m fully aware that some for-profit colleges/universities have employed less than honest recruiting tactics. I have no time for such practices.
Nevertheless, I find myself often sympathetic to the for-profit cause.
I think my views on the issue stem, first, from a long-held (neurotic) tendency to pull for the underdog – whatever the issue. Despite the great riches that a few owners of these schools may have amassed, in most OECD countries, the managers, faculty and students within for-profit schools know that they are associated with the poor cousins of higher ed. Traditional, non-profit universities (TCU) set the overarching logic behind the accreditation system, enjoy tax-free status, receive direct subsidies from the state, and manage to maintain a lock on pretty much everything else in higher education by graduating 99% of society’s leaders. I tend to distrust monopolies (despite my Canadian roots).
FPCU’s must also deal with the long-held prejudice faced by all schools that serve students in the lower end of academic achievement. Universities continue to be evaluated according to their level of exclusivity. As was nicely illustrated in the Washington Monthly piece published this week, “The Prestige Racket”, higher tuition levels and selective admissions is a most direct route to high rankings. By this logic, institutions that serve non-traditional students – regardless of how much they improve the student’s academic abilities and life-chances – are second-class institutions. Professionals that work in our community colleges and continuing education units are deeply familiar with this class-system.
Let’s also consider the possibility that FPCU’s might actually do something well. I’ve had the opportunity to witness first-hand how curriculum is designed and developed in for-profit schools. While my evidence is anecdotal, it suggests strongly that educators and administration in for-profit higher ed put a great deal more time and energy into designing curriculum, as well as other aspects of the student experience (e.g. student support), than is typical at traditional universities. Instructional design is actually taken seriously. Instructional designers actually have a direct-hand in designing the courses; they’re not merely glorified support staff, which is so often the case elsewhere.
This difference doesn’t stem from a greater concern for students among professionals in for-profit education. It’s not a moral issue; it’s structural. Students are customers in the for-profit world, and the schools want them to succeed. The commercial imperative can produce desirable outcomes, although this doesn’t stem from a deeper sense of social responsibility; professionals in both areas of higher ed obviously care about the success of their students. But, currently, many of our traditional institutions are set up to minimize their capacity to act on these interests. Institutional objectives are more diffused: student social activities, faculty research, sports, and so forth. And, of course, the design of courses in traditional schools is typically in the hands of individual faculty, so there’s little sense of how well the courses are meeting student needs.
Unfortunately, I also found in my travels that not all of the FPCU schools have the skills to ensure that their efforts create curriculum that matches their level of commitment to the process. But this will likely come with time and experience.
Most importantly, FPCUs have the potential to act as a catalyst for change in the higher education sector as a whole. Higher education can do much better and it must. But history suggests that it is very difficult for large organizations to change. My hope is that the rise of the for-profits will kick-start some changes in traditional higher ed, as well. This is not to suggest that non-profits should start acting like for-profits (although we’ve started to see this already in terms of marketing practices). The impact of upstarts in an established market is rarely so simple or linear. The rise of FPCUs may, for example, encourage non-profit schools to focus more on their original societal missions or dedicate even more resources to serving the whole student – thereby creating greater differences between the two types of providers.
But TCUs may also be inspired to rethink how they design the relationship between teaching and research – and thereby free up resources and allow people to specialize. It may also lead to a greater use of analytics as schools seek to demonstrate their value to students, parents, and regulators.
And, of course, healthy (i.e. properly regulated) competition can often produce better outcomes for everyone. Sometimes the established providers in a market need to be shaken from their relatively comfy space by “outsiders” that offer alternatives. For some reason, I keep thinking about the North American auto industry.
Finally, we can’t discount the value of good old fashioned debate, regardless of how it all turns out. We need a thoughtful discussion about higher education. It’s about time. Parents will fight like pit bulls over the smallest issue in their children’s public/grade school to ensure that their children receive the best possible education. (If you haven’t attended a school committee meeting – you must, but bring a flak jacket.) But, as was pointed out in the book “Declining by Degrees”, parents and media have tended to focus on two things only when evaluating higher education: can Johnny/Joanne get in to their school of choice and what will it cost? The question of what actually happens after we drop the kids off during orientation week needs more attention.
- The Innovative University by Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring (Author Interview Series) (highereducationmanagement.wordpress.com)
- Wednesday Weekly Reader: The Digital Revolution Edition (drstrangecollege.wordpress.com)