One of the hottest topics in education right now is the issues around for-profit higher education providers.  (Think DeVry, ITT Technical Institute, Capella, University of Phoenix, Walden, etc,, but also your local beauty school, Le Courdon Bleu cooking schools and such.)  Working in the industry, this is a subject I’ve been following closely and have a great deal of passion around.

All too many people are looking at this from a one-dimensional perspective; for-profit = bad.  To this group there is some kind of ethical issue with making money on education; these are the same people who have been tarring and feathering charter schools for the past decade. The corollary is that making money principally from money provided by the government is worse.  (Why this doesn’t apply to defense contracts and such is beyond me.)  The picture is much more complex.

We are caught in an explosion of credential-ism, whereby the administrative assistant who used to need a High School diploma now needs an Associates in Business and a promotion to manager needs an MBA.  Do these jobs really require what is taught in these programs?  Probably not.  But the degree is a short-cut; it indicates purpose on the part of the person, discipline to complete something and some assumed level of knowledge.  (Note that at the same time employers routinely complain that students don’t learn what they need them to learn in school, but that’s another post entirely.)  Regardless, most people can’t stop working long enough to get the credential, making the “traditional” college experience an unachievable goal.

At the same time we live in a society where the message for the past few decades has been that degree = success = money = middle class.  My father died in 1993, when I was in my late 20s.  I had dropped out of college after the first semester of my sophomore year and not yet gone back.  On his death-bed he informed me that I was going to be a bag lady because I hadn’t finished school.  At the time I was making $50k working as a tech support manager in silicon valley.  To him that didn’t matter, and we continue to deliver that message today.  We tell kids and adults that they HAVE to go to college, and we talk about increasing the number of graduates, all the while watching the benefits of that degree shrink.

These competing pressures are driving more and more non-traditional students back to school.  (Traditional students are full-time, 18-21 year olds usually living on campus and working maybe 10 hours per week.)

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, about half of today’s students are financially independent; 49% are enrolled part-time; 38% work full-time; 27% have dependents of their own. Almost half — 12 million — attend two-year community colleges rather than four-year schools.

And most students who start college don’t finish. Only 56% of students at four-year colleges complete a degree within six years, and just 20% of first-time students at public community colleges get a degree or certificate within three years. — USA today citing NCES

We have a system in place that is made to support a small fraction of what today’s college student is actually like at a time when public funding for education is being drastically cut, limiting innovation in the public sector.  Is it any wonder why for-profit firms have stepped in to fill the gap?

For-profit colleges work with a disproportionate number of

  1. working adults
  2. minorities
  3. first time college students
  4. first college student in the family

This is not a chosen strategy; every school would rather have the easy students who all complete their programs, know how to deal with the system and make the school look great by going on to great accomplishments.  For-profits work with this audience because that is the one that exists and is being drastically underserved by other higher education organizations.

On the one hand, many people see these groups as disadvantaged and therefore in need of protection from the “big bad corporate wolf”.  But on the other, most non-profit colleges aren’t interested in supporting these students or don’t have the resources to help them navigate the process.  For example, only 58 percent of community college students eligible for Pell Grants applied.

The study, conducted in collaboration with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), identified several reasons that community college students are reluctant apply for aid. These reasons include:

  • a lack sufficient human and technology resources at financial aid offices to provide students with information and one-on-one assistance
  • financial aid needs of students may not receive adequate priority or attention because public funding is scarce for many community colleges.
  • students not having a basic understanding of financial planning for a college education
  • Say what you want about for-profits, but they provide students the information and resources to apply.

    Are there crooked for-profits out there seeking only to game the system?  Of course.  There are also crooked churches, crooked social service organizations and crooked businesses.  This doesn’t make them ALL crooked.  Are there bad apples at every school doing the wrong things?  Yup; if I could take the enrollment counselors who were recruiting from homeless shelters out and paddle their bottoms I would.

    But just as there are bad for-profits, there are bad non-profits as well.  Segregating the system based on incorporation status doesn’t provide any benefit to the discussion.  Bad apples in both barrels need to be dealt with, students need to be educated on smart college borrowing, and schools that provide sub-standard education need to be weeded out regardless of whether they put their money into shareholder dividends or new buildings and endowments.

    The higher education system has some really big issues right now, and picking on the new kid isn’t going to solve them.  The most sensible voices in the current discussion realize that.  The rest need to come down off their high horses, stop throwing the baby (innovation and superior service) out with the bath water (predatory recruiting practices and uninformed lending) and focus on supporting the students we HAVE, not the ones we wish we had.

    Is a for-profit always the best alternative for a given student?  No.  Neither is Harvard, or StateU or Local Community College.  However singling out the for-profit sector isn’t reasonable; there are lots of people flipping burgers with degrees from third-rate universities who struggle just as much with their loans, and many with non-vocationally oriented degrees from top universities who are drowning in debt.  The problem is systemic and needs to be addressed as such.  Access, funding, and the desired outcomes are all in need of some serious re-imagining, and removing the most imaginative group from the discussion (even if you don’t like what motivates their imagination) isn’t going to help anyone.