Friday, October 09, 2009


Apparently, it's compare-and-contrast week on the blog.

These two stories from IHE, posted on the same day, are worth reading next to each other. They're both about for-profit higher ed, though they take very different angles on it. The first one notes that a quarter of all the Pell grants in America go to students in for-profit institutions. That's a significant increase over even just a few years ago, and it's revealing of the for-profits' student demographics. The second story notes that where community colleges are relatively well-funded, the appeal to students of for-profit alternatives declines.

To which I say, well, yeah.

As regular readers know, I used to work at a for-profit college. Having moved from that into the community college world, I can attest that both institutions made a point of serving populations that have traditionally been underserved. Both include some civic-minded people who believe their work makes a difference in the world, and both have flaws. I also recall a significant number of students moving back-and-forth between the local community colleges and the for-profit, often taking their gen ed courses at the cc and transferring the credits in to save tuition money. (For whatever reason, I don't ever recall reading a story about that, but it was pretty commonplace on the ground.)

With the public side of higher education taking ritual beatings in the various states, I'm not at all surprised to hear that students are flocking to for-profits. For-profits thrive in the cracks of the nonprofit system. As the system cracks up, the for-profits gain more room to move.

In my days at Proprietary U, the college liked to make a distinction between the 'tax paying' sector -- of which it was a part -- and the 'tax consuming' sector, with which it competed. The labels were always a bit overdrawn; as the Pell grant story correctly notes, if Federal student financial aid went away, so would the for-profit college. (From this side, I'd note, too, that direct support for public higher ed is a steadily declining percentage of our budgets.) I also couldn't help but notice how many of PU's faculty, myself included, came from various graduate programs at the state's public flagship university. Since public higher ed is remarkably good at producing new Ph.D.'s, and remarkably bad at providing jobs for them, the for-profits have a steady stream of applicants for faculty positions. In my darker moments, I recalled reading something about sowing the seeds of one's own destruction.

It was once possible to sneer at the entire concept of for-profit higher education. As recently as the early 00's, I attended the national conference of my academic discipline and saw the disdain on people's faces when they saw my institution on my nametag. But there's a fundamental reason that the for-profits are growing, and will continue to:

Someone has to grow.

The non-elite private colleges are economically unsustainable. Public higher ed is creaking. The elites, by definition, can only ever get so big. But the demand for higher education continues to grow, as the realistic alternatives for a decent living without a degree continue to shrink. (The gender breakdown of the Great Recession should finally put to rest the tiresome Charles Murray-esque glorification of manly male blue collar trades. Those jobs took the worst hits by far over the last year.)

Unlike every other sector of higher ed, the for-profits have a revenue model that allows for -- encourages, actually -- growth. My cc loses money on every student. PU made money on every student. Which do you suppose was more capable of growth?

One of the grand poobahs from Home Office once visited PU and gave a talk in which he referred to PU's "secret weapon: private investment capital." Although that was several years ago, the line stuck with me.

In my preferred world, of course, the public sector would have access to that capital through progressive taxation and the redirection of resources away from voluntary wars. But that doesn't seem to be the direction of things. And public higher ed is too busy plugging holes in the dike to think seriously about structural change.

If you don't like the concept of for-profit higher ed, support generous and sustained funding for the public kind. If you're really serious, condition that funding on basic structural change. Without both of those, traditional higher ed faces the fate of a declining aristocracy losing power to a grubby-but-aggressive rising merchant class. Snobbery doesn't pay the bills. At this point, the cracks reach all the way down to the foundation.