13 Ways of Looking at For-Profit Higher Education

For my “Comparative Issues in Higher Education” class this week, I’ve swallowed up 258 pages of articles, reports, and websites on the nature of For-Profit Higher Education in America. I remember taking in Phoenix and DeVry’s commercials as a kiddo with some confusion – were these extensions of high school? Trade schools? Community colleges with ads? Now, I know that For-Profit universities are run as businesses, serving their students as customers and making decisions to maximize share-holders’ profits. They differ from the Non-Profit private schools you normally think of (Harvard, Biola, Princeton) in that they don’t claim to primarily provide a public service; For-Profits are not tax exempt.

For-Profit education leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But, so does medicine. It’s hard to categorize them as either a good or bad thing, since they come with so many sides. So, with apologies to Wallace Stevens, I submit 13 ways of looking at the For-Profit sector of higher education, listed by view-point:

I. The Government

All accredited post-secondary education qualifies for federal financial aid, as it works toward building a knowledge society.

II. The Tax-Payer

Wait – students at for-profit schools are eligible for federal financial aid? So, if these students default on their loans, it costs me? And, default rates are pretty high for graduates of the lower quality for-profit schools…I know schools lose their accreditation if a certain percentage of their students default within five years of graduation, but I read in the Chronicle of Higher Ed that some For-Profits have been helping students defer loan payments until after that period just so they don’t lose accreditation, after which, the students are left alone to pay the extra accrued interest.

III. The Pessimist

I saw that Frontline documentary – “College, Inc.” These diploma mills prey on unsuspecting twenty-somethings, load them with debt for education that won’t make them hirable, and leave them to deal with the consequences on their own.

IV. The Other Pessimist

Oh, right, as if Non-Profit Higher Education isn’t loading students with unmitigated debt? As if Non-Profit graduates never default? At least these schools respond to their students’ needs. At least they don’t have professors who wish they could kick out the students and just do their research. At least they don’t sit on a $32 billion endowment, like Harvard, that goes untaxed because somehow the institution is considered “non-profit”.

V. The Pragmatist

The For-Profit sector is efficient. Some people don’t need a liberal arts education – they just need job training. And, that’s what they get from For-Profits. Our society doesn’t need every 18-22 year old to be removed from the workforce for a full four years so they can read the Metaphysical Poets.

VI. The Holistic Thinker

I don’t know if someone could really be educated by people who – at the heart of it – are seeking to maximize profits. I guess workers can be trained by them, but students…education is just not a product. It’s a way of life. It has to be mentored and modeled, not bought and sold.

VII. The Social Justice Pioneer

For-Profit schools serve more minority students than traditional Non-Profit schools. On average, they do increase earnings for their graduates. They don’t exclude, they bend over backward to offer what students want, and they help first generation college students with the complicated process of applying for student aid.

VIII. The Equality Promoter

Wait, so, minorities are sent to job training while rich white kids go to Harvard and study to be the upper class? This isn’t promoting social equality, it’s just preserving the social structure by turning minority students into more efficient workers for their Harvard-educated white bosses!

IX. The Snob

The professors don’t publish. There aren’t libraries, gyms, dorms. Okay, I suppose they serve some purpose. So, call them vocational schools, I won’t care. Just don’t call them universities.

X. The Unemployed Quarter-Lifer

I need a job. I’m going nowhere. But the ACT? The SAT? The community college, overcrowded with its irritated admissions people? If I had a degree, I’d be proud of myself. My family would be proud of me. No more treading water – a goal, a purpose.

XI. The Business Person

While Non-Profit Public schools have had to limit enrollment and all Non-Profits have suffered with the economic downturn, the For-Profit sector has thrived. They are able to cut and adjust programs to respond to the market in a way that the bulky, high-inertia Non-Profits aren’t. They have continued to serve students in more stable numbers than the Non-Profits have.

XII. The Big-Picture Thinker

I wonder if the “externalities” (that is, the good that accrues to society from college graduates in addition to employment, such as good health, richer political involvement, overall economic efficiency, and lower crime rates) are also brought about by For-Profit education? There’s not much study on that aspect of For-Profits.

XIII. The Platonist

The Sophists are back.


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  • http://www.facebook.com/david.nilsen David Nilsen

    Who knew the Platonist would be so succinct! :)