Tuesday, February 05, 2013


Thoughts on the For-Profit Crackdown

For-profit colleges are having a rough go of it these days.  Just this week, Everest College (a branch of Corinthian Colleges) was forced to shut down operations in Milwaukee after only two years, during which it burned through two presidents.  In my own state, Attorney General Coakley has announced a broader investigation into various for-profit providers in the wake of the abrupt closure of American Career Institutes.   

Unfortunately, much of the debate on for-profits has been ideologically driven.  Republicans in Congress treat for-profit higher ed as a necessary bulwark against the tenured radicals they assume have taken over the public sector.  And traditional academics largely assume that for-profit higher ed is a form of naked exploitation, preying on the poor and the naive.  The “gainful employment” regulations that Congress passed, and that are in some sort of judicial limbo, have hit community colleges hard too, even though community colleges are the lowest cost providers of higher education for most people.

I’ve worked in both for-profit and public higher education, so I’ve seen both from the inside.  This may be why I find the current debate so unhelpful.  I’ll propose something different.

Allow for-profit higher ed to grow, and even prosper, but regulate the product.  Restrict the realm of competition to actual quality.  If a differently-organized college can get equivalent or better results for its students, acting ethically, then bring it on; that’s healthy competition.  But if it’s offering a watered-down product, shut it down.  

In other words, use student learning outcomes to measure the effectiveness of instruction.  Compete on quality.

If we went in this direction, I’d expect to see for-profit higher education bifurcate.  At the “low” end of the spectrum, it could continue to offer the programs that the publics don’t.  (I’m thinking here of the classic bartending or truck-driving schools, but specifics will vary by location.)  But I could also imagine a new focus on the high end.  If they have to charge more than the publics and the MOOCs -- which they would, since they’re taxed and unsubsidized -- then they’d have to offer some kind of value beyond what the publics and MOOCs do.  A for-profit that chose to specialize in one or two programs could conceivably do a very good job with them.  I could even imagine special cases in which a given community college might cede a particular program to a for-profit provider that does a particularly good job with it.  

Even better, this approach would provide a framework for simultaneously dealing with MOOCs and whatever the next big tech breakthrough will be.  Rather than either circling the wagons against the future -- a losing strategy if ever there were one -- or uncritically embracing The Next Big Thing, I’d rather see us compare its actual results to what we’ve been doing.  I’m confident that we’re doing a good job, by and large, and that a fair test would show that.  But confidence and knowledge are not the same thing.  

Instead, most of the dialogue has focused on student loans, placement rates, and advertising.  Those are symptoms.  The underlying issue is quality.  Most of us would accept the proposition that a premium product could legitimately command a premium price.  Since there’s often a serious information asymmetry in the market -- many prospective students have no reliable way of judging quality -- it’s possible for a provider to substitute sizzle for steak and do well for itself for a while.  But the information asymmetry strikes me as largely curable.  And if it is, and prospective students get the benefit of various institutions competing on quality, I see everyone being better off.

Our politics is poisoned, because we pretend that “the market” and “regulation” are somehow opposed.  Good regulation enables a functioning market.  Let’s try it.

I can foresee some problems with developing a meaningful student learning outcomes assessment program that will be useful in comparing the quality of different educational institutions. Such an assessment program would have to be meaningful, it would have to be objective, and it would have to be universally applicable to many different types of schools. It would be difficult to figure out what student success actually means, and it would be quite difficult to measure it across many different types of institutions. Would student success mean the same thing at a community college, a proprietary art school, at a super-snooty SLAC, and at an R1 university?

Perhaps the student learning outcomes assessment program might involve some sort of all-consuming comprehensive test that is given at the end of the curriculum, such as the comprehensive physics exam that I took at the end of my four years as a physics major at a SLAC. But who designs the test, and does the test need to be the same at all colleges and universities? If it isn’t the same, then how do you compare? Or perhaps student success on obtaining employment after graduation might be another possible metric. But how does one count the number of employed graduates--does a graduate who majored in English and who is now flipping burgers at Wendy’s count as being “employed”?

I can see that such a universal student learning outcomes assessment program might lead to all sorts of perverse incentives. The assessment results will consist of a whole bunch of numbers, and woe be unto any school which doesn’t meet its numbers. This might lead to an arms race among competing colleges and universities, and the whole program might devolve into a whole bunch of dueling statistics, much like the US News annual ratings of colleges and universities. The intense competition might lead to schools being tempted to fake the results or to simply make up the numbers just to make themselves look better, in much the same manner as the schools which have been accused of sending in faked statistics to US News. In addition, the assessment system might morph into a rating system for faculty, in which teachers whose students don’t do well on these rubrics would be vulnerable to discipline or even termination. These numbers might ultimately become so important that the entire college’s curriculum might become driven by the need to meet these numbers, and there will be pressure to “teach to the test” to ensure that the school “meets its numbers”. The mission of the school will no longer be to educate the next generation of students, it will now be to meet the numbers on the student success assessment rubrics. The whole system might become corrupt, with everyone lying to everyone else all up and down the chain, pretending that the numbers being reported actually mean something.

Great blog. Generally agree with your view here.

Question: what's your view on teacher prep programs?

That is,

1. There's a decent empirical argument that teacher prep, both traditional and alternative, doesn't make the average new teacher better.

2. Now say U of Phx offers a "watered down" version of the traditional masters degree in teaching.

Why restrict them?
"And traditional academics largely assume that for-profit higher ed is a form of naked exploitation, preying on the poor and the naive."

...and they're right. And you agree with them! So . . . what's the problem?

For-profits were fine when they were on the fringes offering tech degrees and MBAs. They figured out that the big money was in a mafia-style construction con, only the "construction" was students and the mark was the Federal Government. They hired "lobbyists" to keep the mark happy, and it worked for a while.

Then it stopped working eventually and now things are kinda screwed. This is not an unexpected outcome to a con. No mark lasts forever, not even Congresspeople from red states.

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