Thursday, February 11, 2010

Attack of the Blob?

The Chronicle of Higher Ed has a few pieces this week on for-profit higher education. They're revealing and thought-provoking, though not always in the ways intended.

As regular readers know, I worked for a while at a for-profit, which I call Proprietary U. It's one of the big ones -- you've heard of it -- and it's fairly typical for the sector. It runs programs in 'hot' occupational fields, with an unapologetic eye towards placing graduates in jobs. I was on the 'general education' side of the house, which was somewhat anomalous within the culture, but not entirely; the folks in the career placement office were quite clear on the importance of communication and critical thinking skills, which were identified mostly with gen ed. Teaching there involved one part Paolo Freire to three parts Henry Higgins: economic empowerment required some pretty substantial transmission of cultural capital.

In my time there, I was at odds with what became a fairly clear expectation that the student is always right. There was also a fixation on 'responsiveness' to the market that became a sort of institutional ADD. Most curricula changed every couple of semesters, and it wasn't unusual to have three different versions of the same program running at the same time. Curricular changes were handed down from Home Office, usually just a few weeks before the start of the semester. Since those changes often involved shifts in the credit hours for various courses, students who deviated in any way from the cohort to which they had been assigned -- whether because of transfer credits, part-time status, stopouts, course failures, or whatever -- were nearly impossible to schedule. (I'd imagine that the move to much more online instruction has rendered much of that moot by now.) In one memorable instance, Home Office executed a drastic, last-minute change to a popular program, but didn't bother updating the registrar's software to reflect it. We local administrators had to move heaven and earth to patch the holes. I eventually tired of the insanity and decamped for a community college.

That said, though, I still think that the flaws were largely in the execution, as opposed to the design. Many restaurants fail, but that doesn't mean that the restaurant industry is doomed. There's no particular reason that market responsiveness has to be mindless, or that making a profit has to mean neglecting quality. (As Toyota has discovered recently, neglecting quality can hit your profits pretty hard.) To my mind, the basic mistake has been bottom-feeding. You can't undercut community colleges on price; "taxed and unsubsidized" simply can't compete with "subsidized and untaxed." So instead of going for the low end of the market, the way to win is to go for the high end. Provide that personal attention and small class size that the elites offer, but give it to the kids who couldn't get into the Swarthmores of the world.

Still, part of what strikes me about the rapid rise of the for-profits -- and make no mistake, regionally accredited degree-granting for-profits are growing fast -- is that they've been made possible by the failings of the traditional system.

One of the Chronicle pieces quotes Cary Nelson, the President of the AAUP, as

liken[ing] the for-profit sector to "the blob," an alien life form that consumed everything in its path in the 1958 Steve McQueen movie of the same name.
"The blob would shimmer and then be half again as big as before," Mr. Nelson says. "You'd turn your attention away and look back and suddenly, it's blocking out most of the sun."

Exactly wrong. The for-profits didn't come from outer space, or for no particular reason. They emerged to fill gaps in the nonprofit system. Their growth is a direct and predictable reflection of the existing system's failures. If the best the AAUP can come up with is an analogy to space aliens, they just don't get it. And if they don't get it, they won't stop it. Which, so far, they haven't.

Where do the for-profits find the credentialed faculty to teach accredited classes? Hint: is there a shortage of prospective faculty out there?

Where do the for-profits find the students to fill their classes? Hint: how much capacity have the publics added in the last, say, thirty years? And how much of that is in forms and times that are convenient for people with jobs and/or kids?

The for-profits are growing because someone has to. Looking at what California is doing to its system of public higher education, nobody should be surprised to see that the for-profits are thriving there. Students who choose them are frequently the students who couldn't find what they wanted in the public system, or who found it but got shut out by budget cuts.

As Peter Smith correctly notes in a second article, the unmistakable trend of the last few decades in the public systems has been cost-shifting to the individual student. To the extent that costs go the students anyway, the competitive advantage of the publics diminishes. And when the cost-shifting is accompanied by watering-down of quality -- whether by adjuncting-out the faculty, or cheaping out on facilities, or stuffing classes ever larger, or any of the other deaths of a thousand cuts -- it's easy to understand why a student would choose to spend more to get more. That's even truer when getting more involves getting it at convenient times and places.

The for-profits have grown too large to be written off as irrelevant anymore. But for those who object to them, the way to fight them is not by attacking them directly. It's by offering a better alternative. Students and faculty didn't beat a path to the University of Phoenix because they read Milton Friedman. They did it because the U of P offered something they wanted in a way that made it more appealing than the alternatives. If you want to compete, you have to compete.

The blob is from this world, not some other. Until we understand that and act accordingly, it will just keep growing.