Monday, June 28, 2010

The Difference Between Traditional and For-Profit Higher Ed?

Basically, nothing.

I was following the recent Senate hearing on for-profit institutions (#4profit) and joined in with my own Twitter rant, to go along with the Twitter rants of many supporters of for-profit education. Notice I say supporters and not apologists.  I am not so naive as to think that for-profits are all rosy and above-board, but what really makes me mad is that some of the same accusations that are laid at the feet of for-profits can and should be laid that the feet of traditional institutions of higher ed.  Let's go through the list, shall we?

CEO Pay:

The Chronicle of Higher Education provides wonderful information about BOTH traditional (both private and public) and for-profit earnings of their CEOs and Presidents. Notice anything? OK, there are some SERIOUS earners in for-profit education. But what the information provided by the Chronicle fails to really calculate is the external benefits that presidents often earn, even after they retire. Presidents often get homes, cars, trips, domestics, etc, all paid for by the university, and all "external" to their reported earnings for much of it. 

It makes me sick that a CEO in education get paid about a thousand times more than I do, but is this all about the greater-good? Or is it jealousy? And, I ask those Senators who it is they made their fortune in order to be able to afford to run for Senate. I bet most of them would have earned it in the for-profit world.

Bad Management/Accreditation

While I am sure that there are poorly managed and dishonest for-profit schools, if traditional schools were so above-the-board, then we wouldn't need the regional accreditation boards that we have. I invite you to read Kevin Carey's excellent analysis of a traditional college gone bad. Students left with debt and a worthless degree.  Accreditation boards taking a laissez-faire approach because of the non-traditional students the school served. Sound familiar?

As for the accusation that for-profit accreditation is meaningless because it is done by peers, who do you think does the accreditation for traditional schools? Peers. Peers who pay money. Discuss. Or, does one bad apple spoil the whole bunch in for-profit, but not traditional higher ed?

Credit Transfer

It's unclear, the claim goes, what your credits from a for-profit really represents. I point you to another essay by Mr. Carey describing his undergraduate experience at SUNY Binghampton: after receiving 24 credits for his high school AP courses (six courses, four credits per course), he also discovered that unlike other SUNY campuses, "awards four credits for classes that require only three faculty-contact hours per week." He continues:

I also talked to the provost, who insisted that Binghamton's four credits are more substantive than, say, the State University of New York at Stony Brook's three. But there are no external studies or standards to verify that. Speaking as someone whose housemate once entered slacker Valhalla by skipping the entire months of October and November while still earning 16 credits for a full four-course semester, I am, to say the least, unconvinced.

This is just one example, but if credit transfer were so simple for traditional higher ed, then why are many calling for an American version of the Bologna Process, Europe's plan to effectively standardize higher ed?  (I'm not saying we should, just raising the question)

Job Placement

Ah, can we repay our loans.  The Senate hearings brought out a student who got a degree from a program that wasn't accredited and now has obscene loans that she can't pay. Her advice, don't go to for-profit. 

I'd like to point you to a piece in the New York Times, profiling an NYU grad who is effectively unemployed and unable to repay her loans. Her advice? Actually, the advice is to think long and hard about going to NYU.

I have a lot of sympathy for both these women, as someone who has an obscene amount of debt, lots of degrees and no job (if they really want to investigate, try grad school for selling us a false bill of goods with no idea how to market ourselves and get another job).  What is interesting to me is the idea that somehow the for-profit school is more guilty for claiming high job placements while schools like NYU just strongly imply it.  Read the mother's comments about sending her daughter to NYU: "All we needed to do was get this education and get the good job. This is the thing that eats away at me, the naïveté on my part."


This rankles me a lot.  For-profits get dragged in front of Senate hearings for recruiting at McDonalds, while traditional schools get Federal grants for their efforts to diversify/attract non-traditional students.  For-profit schools are overwhelming non-traditional students in every sense: they are older (Stop calling them kids, Senator! was a tweet I read frequently), usually minority and usually first-generation college students.  If traditional higher ed was doing such a great job diversifying and educating all, then there would no market for the for-profits, would there?

No, wait, higher learning loves their rankings and rankings do not reward things like admitting underprepared students (Must. Be. Highly. Selective!)


This is, for me, the ultimate hypocrisy of this whole dog-and-pony show. We don't like it/trust it because it is for-profit, with shareholders and CEO's, etc...And we love traditional universities because it's not about the money, it's about education. Except when it isn't (cough, Harvard, cough). Because using (cheap) adjuncts to teach up to 70% of courses on campus while building new million-dollar football stadiums and basketball training facilities isn't about the money. It might not be "profit," but it's greed.

Perhaps I am defensive as well because I am now, technically, in the for-profit education business.  I care deeply about education. The system, at large, that we have now is broken, on all sides. The for-profits are exposing many of the cracks and chasms that exist.  We can attack or we could take the time to look at why so many students are spending their (and the government's) money at these institutions. We also need to look at all the ways all of higher ed can improve.  I want to be part of that change. And get paid doing it. 


  1. As an advisor at a for-profit school, you have identified most of my frustrations with the way things are going down. And yet, I feel there is also a bit of justice in the direction that Congress and the DOE are proceeding, because I do believe for-profits are unconcerned about how these graduates will pay back their loans, or even if the education is worth the cost. The piece of paper only has so much value, especially when there is such a bias against the people that granted it.

  2. True enough, John, but there are a lot of traditional institutions where the degree isn't worth the paper it's printed on, either. Not really, anyway.

    Something I forgot while writing this, is the hidden motivation of one of the "experts" testifying, Steven Eisman, who stands to really profit from the value of the stocks of for-profit bottoming out:


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