Monday, May 16, 2016


The Other Legacy of the For-Profit College Boom

The New Yorker has a pretty good piece on the students stranded by the abrupt closures of for-profit colleges.  It mentions the students who are withholding loan payments for programs taken at the Corinthian Colleges, which both closed and showed evidence of fraud.  And it ends with a heartbreaking profile of a former student who’s trapped in low-wage limbo, waiting for final judgment on loans he won’t be able to repay, and yet rightly wary of going back to school after what happened to him the first time.

As far as it goes, it’s quite good.

But I was disappointed that it didn’t follow through on the photograph that led the article.  The photo showed some fired faculty loading boxes of their stuff into their cars, presumably never to return.  When the college closed, they lost their jobs.  The same is likely true of staff and administration.

Coming on the heels of Burlington College’s closure, I couldn’t help but think about the other legacy of the for-profit college boom: former employees cast adrift.

For a while in the late 90’s, and again in the late 00’s, for-profit colleges accounted for a disproportionate percentage of academic hiring.  (I was part of the first wave.)  That happened for two reasons: for-profits were growing, and non-profits weren’t hiring.  If you were on the market at a particular time and place, you may have had a choice between a sustaining job at a for-profit, and adjuncting at a non-profit.  In that context, the glib equation of “for-profit” with “exploitative” was questionable at best.  

Some of the people I worked with at DeVry should have been snapped up elsewhere, and would have been in a more rational world.  Many eventually were, and when we meet now, we tend to use verbs like “escaped.”  One who retired semi-voluntarily expressed his envy that, in his words, I “found a hole in the fence.”  It was a difficult place to work in the best of times, and the best of times are well behind it.  At least it’s still open.

It had (and has) its issues, which is why we gravitate to prison metaphors.  But it also took in a generation of academics that nobody else would.  It was a port in a storm.  As more of those ports close, the storm only gets stronger.  

It’s easy to write the sins of the organization onto the individual employees, but it’s also a category mistake.  The faculty there -- myself included -- resented and resisted attempted management intrusions into, say, grading decisions.  (Part of my decision to escape was based on not wanting to do that.  I can say with a straight face that I never did.)  We took our teaching seriously, as did the students.  Many of us simultaneously taught at various non-profit colleges and universities in the area, partly for money, partly for a different environment, and partly for validation.  Most of us would have accepted, eagerly, offers from traditional institutions if they had been offered.  

Monday’s piece in IHE about ever-increasing discount rates suggests, among other things, that the for-profits aren’t the outliers that many academics like to think they are.  They’re the canaries in the coal mine.  Many of the little ports in which academics have taken shelter are looking unsustainable.  The folks who’ve worked at Burlington College aren’t in any better shape now than those who worked at Corinthian.  And I don’t think Burlington College will be the last.

For-profits were especially susceptible to boom-bust cycles, since they drew their revenue entirely from enrollment.  But an awful lot of smaller private colleges aren’t really that different, and their discount rates suggests that they’ve hit, if not exceeded, the highest tuitions the market will bear.

I don’t really have a happy ending to this one.  I just hope that hiring committees at the few places that are still hiring won’t hold past resourcefulness against candidates.  They worked honestly, hard, and (often) well.  It’s not their fault that they’re left to pack their things for anonymous headline photos.


Matt is right—the ills that affect for-profit institutions such as Corinthian Colleges and the Education Management Corporation also seem to have had an effect on some non-profit schools. The primary reason for these problems seems to be due to declining student enrollments.

Why are student enrollments declining at lots of higher-ed institutions? These declines result from relatively flat high school graduation rates, the high cost of a college education, plus an increasing perception that a college diploma from any institution less than Princeton or Williams is really not worth all that much in the current job market, certainly not worth acquiring a lifetime of debt.

It is still true that college graduates have a lower unemployment rate than those with just a high-school diploma, but even with a college degree in hand, good full-time jobs that pay decent salaries and benefits are often difficult for graduates to find, and a lot of graduating students end up living at home with their parents and working in a series of low-paying temporary gigs while they chase after that elusive full-time position that they presumably trained for at college. I think that the unemployment statistics can give a somewhat misleading picture—a recent college graduate who is now bagging groceries at the local supermarket still counts as being “employed”.

Top-tier research universities such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Chicago, Stanford, MIT and Caltech, and super-selective liberal arts schools such as Williams, Amherst, Wellesley, and Swarthmore will probably always be OK, since they generally receive far more student applications than they can possibly accept. But some lower-tier and less-prestigious academic institutions are faced with declining student enrollments. The decline in enrollments has become so severe that some of these institutions have been faced with having to close their doors. On the average, about five nonprofit schools close down every year, Burlington College being an example.

College enrollment seems to track inversely with the overall state of the economy. When there is an economic downturn, the job market gets tighter, young people find it harder to get decent jobs, and larger numbers of students choose to go to college in the hopes of improving their lot. But when the economy improves, more young people are able to get jobs and fewer numbers of them choose to attend college.

These financial problems only promise to get worse in the future, and some financial experts predict that the rate of college closings will increase greatly over the next few years.

The future of higher ed does not look bright. Rising costs, declining revenues, more layoffs, more schools closing their doors, and more out-of-work faculty members.

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