Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Go Negative?

I enjoyed this story.

Apparently, Ozarks Technical Community College has decided to take out ads showing how its tuition levels stack up against its local for-profit competitors.  The idea is to provide some much-needed counterpoint to the marketing barrage that for-profits routinely generate, and to warn students away from programs that might saddle them with heavy debt burdens and non-transferable credits.

The story makes OTCC’s motivation a bit murky, since it apparently isn’t hurting for students.  But let’s leave that aside.  Should community colleges duke it out with for-profits in commercials?

As longtime readers know, I’ve worked in both for-profit and community college settings.  The for-profit for which I worked, DeVry, was regionally accredited, which is unusual for the sector.  (The University of Phoenix is also regionally accredited, as it happens.  They’re both covered by North Central, which is the same regional accreditor that covers, say, the University of Michigan.)  It advertised heavily in the region, and drew students who in some cases might otherwise have gone to community colleges.  (Interestingly, it also attracted a fair number of students who had previously attended community colleges, though I’ve never seen that discussed in the media.)

When I was there -- 1997 to 2003 -- the discussion around competing with publics was framed somewhat differently.  Instead of contrasting “for-profit” with “non-profit,” the preferred terms were “tax paying” and “tax taking.”  DeVry was taxpaying, the theory went, but the local community college was tax taking.  (It wasn’t until later that I came to appreciate just how much of the college’s income came from Title IV.)  There was some truth to the claim; DeVry paid property tax on its building, for example, but Rutgers University, just up the street, didn’t.  Rutgers got operating subsidies from the state, but DeVry didn’t.  When the deck was stacked like that, the argument went, higher tuition was a natural outcome.

(From the faculty perspective, the major difference was the teaching calendar.  Both DeVry and the local community colleges had loads of 15 credits per semester, and 15 week semesters.  But the community colleges defined a full-time schedule as two semesters, with summers off.  DeVry defined at as three four-month trimesters, with no break longer than two weeks. It was pedagogical boot camp.  Whether that’s still true, though, I don’t know.)

The great frustration of working there was that the faculty -- of which I was one -- considered ourselves real college faculty, but the marketing wing of the company often undermined that message.  Some students were able to turn off the marketing blitz, but some weren’t, and they were a challenge.  

In some ways, having worked in both settings, I’d like to see much more direct comparison between them.  In the real world, many prospective students don’t really get the distinction, and even fewer get the distinction between regional accreditation -- which is to say, transferable credits -- and national accreditation.  Most of the time, the latter can’t transfer.  I’ve seen plenty of students arrive at community colleges from nationally accredited for-profits, bearing heavy loans but bringing no transferable credits.  It’s not a good situation.  Someday, if credit for prior learning really takes off, it may be possible to take some of the edge off for for-profit refugees, but we’re not there yet.

I’d hate to see ads based on stereotyping, since community colleges suffer enough stereotypes as it is.  But a campaign based on explaining the differences between, say, credits that transfer and credits that don’t  -- or low tuition and high tuition -- strikes me as entirely fair.  If a for-profit manages to do a better job and provide more value for the money -- the Mercedes U that I still think someone will develop -- then bring it on.  But I’d stack up my community college’s offerings against any of the local for-profit competitors anytime.  I’d hate to see prospective students wind up in a bad fit just because we were reticent about competing.  And if we were able to use some clarifying messaging to improve the public’s opinion of the public sector, well, that’s fine too.

Go nastily negative?  No.  But draw some pretty strong contrasts?  Absolutely.