Evidence on the Quality of For-profit Higher Education?

A confluence of forces: a letter requesting my participation in doctoral dissertation research from a student at the University of Phoenix and an increase in for-profit ads endorsed by the Chronicle of Higher Education in my inbox.

While we all make mistakes, the attached letter recruiting subjects for research is a small piece of evidence that appears to confirm our collective worst fears: for-profits are most interested in money, less interested in quality education (I have blocked out the student’s identifying information and the link to the student’s survey). Granted, many faculty, including myself, have participated on dissertation committees of students who produce less than stellar research, write poorly, etc. — and these students attend not-for-profits or publics. No doubt there is a problem with both the preparation of students and the quality of some programs.  I constantly strive to improve the quality of education for my students, but it is admittedly an ongoing challenge. But are for-profits and the model of education they trumpet helping to address these problems?

I think it is fair to single out the for-profits for several reasons. The first is the belief evident in current education policy talk that says markets and the profit motive (ignoring all the fraud, of course), will lead to greater educational access, quality and equality. I have suspected for a long time that for-profit education will at best not achieve these goals. At worst, I fear they will serve to make things much worse.

Research conducted with my colleagues has documented that for-profits receive the highest median Pell per full-time equivalent (FTE) compared to publics and non-profits for the years 1993, 2000 and 2004. This trend might be framed as another form of corporate subsidy. At the same time, for-profits continue to enroll an increasing number of minority students (my most recent research found a huge percent increase in the number of American Indian/Alaskan Natives attending for-profits, for example).

Most interesting is our finding that a smaller percentage of expenses is directed toward instruction at for-profits than non-profits. Sure, maybe for-profits are more efficient, but that line of argument doesn’t solve the problem of why this great efficiency appears to be applied aggressively toward groups that have been and continue to be subjected to discrimination and racist exclusion? Is it OK to “waste” money on rich White kids? (I don’t believe that small class sizes, and small teaching loads for faculty, with a broad range of social and cultural activities for college students, faculty and staff, and plenty of support for faculty developed curriculum and research, is “wasteful”; it just doesn’t line up with the present goals and values of the super rich who now think they reign supreme).

So, we should ask, efficient at what, for whom? Even if a particular student benefits from this type of educational opportunity that does not obliterate the real concern: does the rise of for-profits and marketization more generally herald a new kind of educational stratification, a new means for structuring inequality under the guise of accountability, access and “meeting student demands”? Since for-profits have a greater percentage of Pell eligible students, are we seeing a class bifurcation, especially as publics become less “public” (i.e., affordable)? Add to these concerns the role of for-profits in popularizing the view that education is equivalent to job training — that education has no other, broader social purpose.

Now let’s get back to the Chronicle. The only national newspaper dedicated to covering higher education has moved to sponsor — not simply advertise on their website and print edition, but endorse — email campaigns for a controversial sector of higher education. I for one expect them to cover for-profits in an unbiased fashion. Does the Chronicle of Higher Education actually endorse the for-profit model of higher education, despite the growing concerns that even for-profit PR firms have been unable to eradicate?

Well, upon receiving the first such email endorsement of for-profits, I sent a letter explaining my opposition to this practice to the Chronicle of Higher Education, and received no reply. Maybe the “efficiency” and “opportunity” and “accountability” evident in this recruitment letter will get someone’s attention!

2 Comments Evidence on the Quality of For-profit Higher Education?

  1. Mitzi Standard April 27, 2011 at 9:56 pm

    I took an “Issues in Education” course you taught at D’YC around 2000. You are totally right. I see it happenning in front of my eyes in the Buffalo district. A well-trained teacher is reflective, and the results of all this top-down, heavy handed authoritarian direction is a growing number of h.s. dropouts. They have it all wrong, from the federal to the state to the local level. They think we need an educated populace to maintain economic superiority. The students don’t care about America’s economic superiority. They care about their own personal lives and personal benefit. They are not supposed to be educated to serve the state, the state is supposed to serve them by providing an opportunity for them to grow into citizens. But we’re so far into this wrong direction that I don’t know what it’s going to take to wake people up. I am reminded of a line from Macbeth, “I am stepped in blood so far, that going back would be as tedious as to go over.” It’s going to be painful either way, but we ought to end up in the right place. What can I do?

  2. Mark Garrison April 28, 2011 at 9:36 am

    Mitizi, it is good to hear from you. Whether one views the issues associated with for-profit higher education or the failure of the corporate reform of K12 education, I think a key agenda item is this: teachers, parents and their families, and educational administrators need to discuss amongst themselves how to be politically effective and how to envision a new kind of public education. This discussion should break free of the false choice of defending the past or supporting privatization. So, for example, note that the governing model assumed by Race to the Top is bribery and that bribery is only used when people would not otherwise take up a course of action. All the heavily touted education reforms being pushed are against the public, against the popular will. Pressuring politicians has not given rise to the realization of the popular will, or the resolution of long-standing problems associated with all the various forms of social inequality. So what alternatives to pressure politics exist in the present circumstance? Taking up that discussion is something we should all do.

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