Tuesday, March 16, 2010


The Great Training Robbery

As regular readers know, I'm usually unimpressed by The New York Times' coverage of higher education. But this story is almost adequate.

It's a description of the interplay of Federal financial aid, very high tuition, and the Great Recession at several for-profit colleges. Focusing mostly on culinary programs offered at several branches of Career Education Corporation, it describes students paying $20,000-$30,000 per year for degrees in fields that are marketed as leading to high-paying jobs, but that often result in nothing more than the entry-level positions students could have obtained without the degree. Students sign up out of a combination of desperation, willingness to believe what sales/admissions reps tell them, and the knowledge that much of their tuition will be covered by financial aid. The quote that jumped off the screen for me was about halfway through the article:

By the 2011-12 school year, the administration now estimates, students at for-profit schools should receive more than $10 billion in Pell grants, more than their public counterparts. (emphasis added)

That's the dirty secret of the for-profit funding model as it's currently constructed. While the for-profits love to describe themselves as the free-market alternative to public higher ed, the vast majority of their revenue comes from the government, as channeled through students. Take away their financial aid eligibility, and they close.

Or if you prefer: to the extent that public higher ed shifts costs to students, its funding model comes closer to that of the for-profits. As the funding model goes, so must go the decisions. It's the force of economic gravity.

Still, the tragic flaw of the article was its lack of comparative perspective. To my reading, the real scandal isn't that for-profit providers will charge what the market/government will bear, or that students will take flyers on dicey careers. That's to be expected. It's that despite the well-documented flaws in the workforce-development model of education, policymakers keep steering community colleges in that direction.

If the graduates of the various culinary programs got the jobs they expected, would the Times still object? If not, then the real story isn't the programs; it's the job market. Not naming any names, but I know some community and public colleges with degree programs in vocational fields, even including culinary. How are their grads doing? From this story, it's impossible to tell. I also know some colleges with degrees in accounting, computer information systems, criminal justice, and the various strands of allied health. (What, exactly, is allied health allied with? I've never understood that.)

Nothing against any of those programs per se. Each has its merits -- heaven knows we need police officers and nurses -- but to present any of them as a ticket to a guaranteed job is irresponsible in the extreme. The 'training' model falls short when markets for various fields got hot and cold unpredictably, which they inevitably do. I don't know what the next hot thing will be, or the one after that. (If I did, I'd buy stock in it.) Nobody does. While some students choose fields of study based on love of the subject, we all know that many make choices based on anticipated employability after graduation. (The bane of the philosophy major is the relative who keeps asking "what are you going to do with that?") Any serious student of the American economy would have to admit that yesterday's 'sure thing' is today's sinking ship. Taking tuition money based on untenable -- even if well-intended -- promises doesn't do the students any good.

While it's fine to equip students for fields in which they're likely to be immediately useful, there's a larger responsibility to help students develop the skills that will come in handy no matter what the economy does. To me, that's the relevant line of inquiry when examining a program, whether at a for-profit or elsewhere. Okay, the students are being trained in some specialized skills. Are they also developing their communication skills at a college level? Do they fall to pieces when confronted by grownup math? Can they make an argument using evidence, or tell when they're being sold a bill of goods? Do they have some vague sense of a world larger than their own experience?

There's an old joke about the economist who's asked to predict what will happen with interest rates over the next few years. He gets a distracted expression, strokes his chin, and announces "I believe they will fluctuate." I don't know what the next hot fields will be, but I believe they will fluctuate. The scandal isn't that a gamble on this specialization or that one didn't pay off. It's that the training was so narrow that the students couldn't adjust when things changed. If a for-profit can give them both the training and the education, then I don't have an issue with it. If it -- or any other college -- provides training and stops at that, that's the real scandal.

So one cheer for the Times. It buried the lede and missed a good chunk of the point, but at least it got part of the topic right. Maybe if it hired some better bloggers...

I have a nephew-in-law who double-majored in political science and philosophy. Whenever someone asked him what he planned to do with his poli sci major, he'd look puzzled for a moment, and then say, "Well, I always have philosophy to fall back on."

More seriously. I work at a (4-year) school at which the three largest majors are business, education, and nursing. (Criminal justice, if I remember correctly, is number 5.) Since I've been here, all have gone through modest down cycles, but graduates of those programs have done as well as any group. In which outcome we may have been fortunate.

I myself attended a small liberal arts school and was a social science major. But I understand, from a student's perspective, that education is often a means to a job. And, in many ways, it always has been. We have, over time, simply expanded the range of jobs for which higher education is the primary entry point.

500, 600 years ago, universities trained lawyers, priests, and some doctors (they trained the doctors badly, but, given the state of knowledge, that was as well as they could do.)

By the late 19th century universities trained scientist and engineers. And a lot of people complained about that, saying that was just vocational training. And the late 19th century was also the period in which the growth in university training for elementary and secondary school teachers really took off.

Until the middle of the 20th century, most people working in accounting did not have university educations. Now, it's standard. The same was true for nursing (although nursing schoiols at universities date back further than that).

My point is that higher education has always been job training. The trick is to figure out how to make it job training...plus something more.
reading Terry Pratchett, "Guards ! Guards !" where a dragon attacks the city. At a meeting of the guilds, the head of the Assassins asks, "At times like this it's traditional that a hero comes forth. A dragon-slayer. Where is he ? Why aren't our schools turning out young people with the kind of skills society needs ?"
I laughed so loud the dog looked up amazed..
I have a degree in aquaculture and aquarium science (basically anything that has to do with fish in captivity) and my family is always asking "When are you going to start using your degree?" As soon as I get a job!!! It's not like I'm not trying, but I just graduated and the economy isn't the greatest right now.

I think today many fewer graduates land a job before they leave college or immediately after, than in my parents generation. My parents are not happy that I've been done with school for almost a year and still don't have a job in my field. I have a job, just not in my field, isn't that accomplishment enough right now? They drive me crazy.
My bigger problem with this article was the insinuation that somehow for-profit institutions were doing this, but not-for-profits and publics weren't. That's just not the case.

Our colleges and universities turn out massive numbers of graduates with heavy debt loads and degrees for which there is either no market or lousy pay. (See, for example, the average starting teacher's salary. Not to mention a humanities PhD.) Over-promising potential job outcomes is not now, nor has it ever been, a problem strictly with the for-profits.

Yet echoing the tone of the Dept. of Ed, the Times decided that for-profit (which is apparently some monolithic group that all acts the same) = evil = good scapegoat for all the systemic problems in higher ed funding and economic problems in the job market. The article buries the idea that there are many different types of for-profit programs out there with varying success rates, casting aspersions on the entire group. The lack of critical thinking and clarity of thought/speech was disappointing, since I'm sure the author has a college degree from somewhere...
I think the problem's not only the job market, but the way in which students are recruited to schools. The egregious sin of the for-profits in the NYT's story you link was that they were recruiting on specific career promises that were untenable.

I know that my public university doesn't guarantee students X jobs at Y salaries after graduation nor do our recruiters. But the pressure to "land students" is letting this go by and the ones who pay are the students who've naively believed that they've paid for training that will pay off right away and in a clear fashion.

Now, not every for-profit is doing this but the NYT's numbers are also instructive in pointing out that for-profits are poised to be consuming the lion's share of student loans and doing so, for some students in some programs, under rather shady auspices.

By the way, I'd like to see more colleges and universities reporting publicly and accessibly on placements as has George Brown College in Toronto. See http://www.georgebrown.ca/kpi/index.aspx
Education is costly and state colleges do receive money from the public and federal government. However, my main problem is that the for-profits are public even on the stock market and they are receiving somewhere up to 80% of their funding through the government. Something seems strange here to me.

Having worked at a prop u for 5 years my main gripe is that they don't invest in the education part enough to back their grandiose promises at the admissions stage. Our prop u could not get middle states accredidation for a multitude of reasons. They would not even invest in a proper college library. So, when a student graduates with a 2-year degree other colleges will not accept the credits due to the accredidation issue. Students are completely unaware of this until they try to apply to another college.
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