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.

7 thoughts on “For-Profit Higher Ed: Notes By A Sympathetic (But Impatient) Traditionalist

  1. Interesting comments.

    I have a question, based on your comment that you have had a chance to observe “first-hand how curriculum is designed and developed in for-profit schools”, why do you imply that is less valid, simply because that is anecdotal? You saw it, therefore it happened. I don’t understand that dismissal. We practically never have experimental conditions in education, that doesn’t mean your observations are less valid. Qualitative sampling usually is “purposive, rather than random” (Kuzel, 1992; Morse, 1989; Miles & Huberman, 1994, p. 27).

    Also, if you witnessed such, can you verify the claim to be an outsider? Were you observing covertly? Just curious.

    I just completed my PhD on for-profit education, as it occurs when the U.S. sells tertiary education to China. Upon return to the U.S., just this past May, I secured a position with a for-profit institution Stateside. I’ve worked as an administrator/adjunct lecturer in TCUs(Traditional Colleges/Universities) for nearly 12 years, and in the private industrial sector (manufacturing) for over 10 years. What I’m finding, which is of course, based on a single, unique case, is that there are striking similarities, between what happens when we “sell education to China” and when we “sell education at home.” If one throws out the “government funding variable” that occurs in the U.S. the similarities are even greater.

    Both offer students (that normally would NEVER be admitted into a TCU in either country) second chances at educational attainment; which in turn, manifests as “gained face” in communities, families, and society at large. Both charge up to 10 times what a TCU would charge. Both rake in tremendous profits (upwards of 40% annually). Those are a few of the salient similarities, I’ll cover more in an upcoming publication.

    What you “witnessed, anecdotally” may in fact occur, but as you pointed out, “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.” That is no less true than in TCUs. Research commitments, authoring commitments, and tenured benefits likely confound (face to face level) efforts at TCUs.

    The detriment, to consumers, in the for-profit realm is the absolute (curriculum) neglect of student (i.e., ‘personal’) development. At best, that is of secondary concern. When (sadly, more often, ‘if’) that occurs, it is because a dean, associate dean, program chair, or most likely, an instructor incorporates it into his/her lesson plan, via the “academic freedom” that exists in any given classroom.

    The “tracking” that exists however, through “career services” at for-profits, generally dwarfs the consideration given to graduates from TCUs.


  2. Thanks for the comments, Vincent.
    I’d love to see your research once published. Maybe you could provide a summary for this blog?

    Re: anecdotal.
    My use of the word “anecdotal” was used to distinguish between a formal, extensive study with consistent and explicit criteria and limited, unstructured observation. While it’s true that laboratory-like conditions are rare in education, I believe there is a significant difference, nonetheless.


  3. I agree with a few of your points, especially the for-profits’ commitment to course creation. The course I taught was quite well suited to the students, and it had the great advantage of being consistent regardless of which faculty member was teaching it.

    I, too, have taught at both a community college and a for-profit, so I also see the status issues involved with the “name” of the institution as well as the perceived quality and preparadness of students for college work. Whereas I love teaching these exact kinds of students–those who may consider themselves unfit for college or too poor to matter–what I saw in the for-profit world was an extreme desire to attract these students but an extreme lack of services to help them succeed. Our writing center, for example, was extremely understaffed, and individual access to tutoring was pathetic. My feeling is, of course many of these students can succeed, but their backgrounds dictate they often need lots of extra academic support to do so. That level of support was just not there. Many of these students also mentioned that they thought they may have an undiagnosed learning disability or mental health problem, but again, there was no support for that, nowhere to send them for an evaluation or assistance. This is why this is more than just “they’re picking on us because our students are poor” argument. There is a moral issue here: if you are going to offer an education to people likely to have difficulty with it, you are also morally required to assist them in ways that are likely to help. The for-profit I worked for just did not do that.


  4. Thank you for the very thoughtful input, Rob. I agree entirely. From a policy perspective, we need to think about how this extra burden for support services (which is tough to do effectively even when well-resourced) will fall on the shoulders of some schools more than others.
    It is my understanding that in K12 in Canada more public funds are directed at schools with a higher proportion of at-risk students. Does this logic apply to higher ed? Should it?


  5. I agree with your critique of traditional institutions for their lack fo responsiveness to student learning needs, and with your observation that institutional inertia on the part of traditional unis/colleges is a killer, and your questions about whether for-profits can bring some positive pressures to bear on traditional institutions are interesting! I do, however, think you downplay the negative aspects of a hyper standardized curriculum. My real interest is in how for-profits and traditional institutions can co-exist in a market that sufficiently regulated to protect student “consumers” from predatory practices. Thanks for an interesting and balanced perspective on the issue!


  6. Thanks for the input, Laura.
    I take your point about standardized curriculum. I’m not entirely comfortable with a highly centralized approach to instructional strategies and curriculum. I suppose we are looking for that “sweet spot” where we strike the right balance between ensuring we leverage the creativity of individual educators and the need to be confident that most if not all of our students are receiving the best possible experience.
    My motivation for writing this post was essentially to point out that progress in higher education won’t necessarily present itself to us nicely packaged with a bow. For-profit education, particularly the online variety, may be the force that generates some of the changes we would like to make to what I’ll call “traditional higher education”. We may not adopt the for-profit model, but it’s growing share of the market in higher education may help us to rethink some of our practices, models, etc.


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