Thursday, April 10, 2014


Marked for Life

Jones said that faculty members were concerned not only about Katharine Gibbs’ practices but also that Generals had been part of the for-profit sector at all.”

Should past employment in a for-profit college forever bar someone from working in public higher ed?

(Clears throat)


The issue came up last week when some faculty at the Community College of Philadelphia objected to the institution’s new president, in part on the grounds that he had once worked at a for-profit college.  (His immediate prior employment was as the academic vp at Mercer County College, in New Jersey.)  

I have to take exception to that, and not only because I am, myself, a veteran of the for-profit sector.  

People who entered higher education in the last couple of decades faced a seriously hostile job market.  Much of that had to do with political decisions: public sector disinvestment hit at the same time that mandatory retirement went away, thereby dampening hiring from both ends.  Add Baumol’s cost disease to the mix, and you get an ugly picture.

But there’s another factor that’s rarely noticed.  Across the economy, all of the net job growth occurs in companies or institutions less than five years old.  More community colleges were started in the decade from the early sixties to the early seventies than in the four following decades combined.  After a brief burst of growth, the industry hit maturity quickly.  It’s still there.  The spike is somewhat less pronounced in the four-year sector, but even there, new public four-year colleges have become rare birds.

In the 90’s and 2000’s, the exception to that was the for-profit sector.  In that area, actual growth was happening.  That drove hiring.  For many of us who graduated into the rough years, the choice wasn’t between a full-time job at a traditional college and a full-time job at a for-profit.  It was between adjuncting at a public or working full-time at a for-profit.  The sector that was supposedly pure and virtuous offered only part-time work; the sector that was supposedly rapacious and evil offered a living wage and health insurance.   I also couldn’t help but notice how much more diverse the workforce was in the for-profit sector, which I suspect is a function of the decades in which they hired.

Moreover, working in the for-profit sector offered a glimpse into other possible ways of doing things.  Many of those glimpses were discouraging or even horrifying, but not all.  And actual knowledge of how the competition works is potentially much more useful than fear-driven stereotypes.

That’s particularly true on the administrative side, where you see the biggest differences between the sectors.  

Many of us who started out at for-profits through a personal version of “any port in a storm” later fled for other opportunities, and we had good reasons for doing so.  I have no intention of going back, for many obvious reasons.  But assuming that anyone who worked there is some sort of mole, or surreptitious true believer, is just ridiculous.  And blacklisting folks who made the best of a bad situation is just mean.

If you don’t like for-profits -- and there are valid reasons not to -- compete them out of business.  Learn from them what they do well, and apply those lessons in the service of a more humane mission.  People who have worked in both sectors will have a more realistic perspective on those questions, generally, than people who have worked in only one.  (To be fair, the stereotyping runs the other way, too.  I knew some folks at DeVry who had never worked in traditional higher ed, and whose image of it was much more about themselves than about anything external.)  For-profits caught on early to the anti-remediation trend, and they appreciate more than the rest of us just how much an application fee deters students.  

I don’t know Dr. Generals, and I don’t know if he’ll be successful at CCP or not.  But I do know that simply writing off a significant chunk of the last generation of academics wouldn’t be smart and wouldn’t be fair.  If anything, cross-sector experience could be an asset, especially in administration.  Status anxiety is unbecoming in an open-access sector.  If we’re going to move forward, we’re going to need to get over ourselves.

Spot on, as they say.

You are a liberal in the old-fashioned sense, in the best sense.
When I think about jobs I tend to divide workers into two categories, producers and rent-seekers. There are the people who care about craftsmanship, constantly improving their work, and putting out the best product they can every day. And then there are the people who work hard at looking like they're doing all those things, without producing anything of value.

For-profits set off a rent-seeking red flag for me. I've read and heard a lot of stories from former for-profit faculty. Stories about how they were told that X% of their people needed to pass each one of their classes, and if that didn't happen they were going to be fired. So the faculty passed people who didn't learn anything, and didn't care to learn anything, because the faculty wanted to keep their jobs. There are other stories from workers who spent all day telemarketing potential students, and workers who walked into homeless shelters trying to enroll people in for-profit colleges. Then I look at the numbers, and for-profits suck up a disproportionately large amount of federal loan debt, while their students struggle to find work. Here's a statistic from your book: for-profits account for 12% of the undergraduate population, but they consume 25% of financial aid money. It's hard not to look at the entire thing and see it as a scheme to extract rent from the government.

I don't have any objections to for-profits that produce more value than they extract, but most for-profits in their current form don't seem to do that. And so I'd be really nervous about someone from a for-profit upper-level (post-dean) administration coming to work at my community college.

And that's not to say that there isn't rent-seeking in the public sector. I've worked with a lot of tenured professors in the past that I thought were complacent and not interested in producing anything of value. But if I'm looking at resumes and I see that someone took a leadership position in not producing anything of value, then I don't want that person at my community college.
DD, Edmund Dantes agrees with you. The man is complimenting your character. It's time to take a step back.

The for-profit sector is, as you have noted on multiple occasions, essentially a mafia con, laundering Federal student loan money. Should people who have worked there be considered for jobs in non-con-related areas? Sure. Maybe they got sucked in and want out.

But PRESIDENT? Of a COMMUNITY COLLEGE? Do we really think that a person who was a high-level level administrator to be considered for President in a mafia con is a good match for CC culture?

That seems . . . unlikely. Yes, it's a strike against. It should be.

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