Thursday, March 30, 2006

Ask the Administrator: For-Profits vs. CC's

A reader who teaches full-time at a for-profit college writes:
I know you have mentioned that you worked at a for-profit at one point. I am a FT instructor at a for-profit right now, and sometimes think about jumping ship and trying to teach at a CC, mostly because I'm tired of the low salary as well as the courseload (6 classes this semester). Am I just kidding myself that it would be any different?

Could you write a post about the differences between a for-profit and a CC? I know it depends on the institution etc but I'm just interested in your take on it.

You can sign me-

If It's For Profit, Where's the Profit Sharing?

I should have addressed this directly a long time ago. Thanks for the question!

Yes, I’ve worked at both. I was first faculty and then administration at a for-profit college, then moved to a deanship at a cc, where I’ve also taught a class.

Stipulating up front that not all for-profits, or all cc’s, are the same, I’ve noticed some basic genre differences.

At the for-profit at which I worked, and at every for-profit I know, the academic calendar is 12 months. I don’t mean there’s a summer session; I mean the full schedule runs all year long. The financial benefit is obvious; you get the full use of your fixed facility cost, rather than letting much of it lay fallow for months. There are also marketing benefits: a student who can take three semesters a year can graduate faster (8 semesters would take less than 3 years), and there are more points of entry during the year for enrollment. (With the advent of accelerated classes, there are new entry points every two months, year round.) The admissions rep can close the sale quickly.

The group that suffers the most under this arrangement is the faculty. Although I suppose it would be theoretically possible to have faculty teach two semesters a year and stagger them, in reality, full-time faculty teach full loads twelve months a year. (At my school, the longest break of the year was three weeks, from late June into mid July.) My teaching load was 45 credits per year: 15 per semester, 3 semesters per year. By contrast, a full-time load at my cc is 30 credits per year, made possible by the summer break.

The for-profit flirted briefly with sabbaticals, but they were among the first things cut when the tech boom imploded. Faculty development there was light, and lightly used, given the incessant teaching.

Salaries for faculty were fairly comparable at the low end, although the benefits at the cc are better (and summers are off). The ceiling for faculty salaries was lower at the for-profit. Salaries for administration were lower across the board at the for-profit.

The for-profit for which I worked was a campus of a national (actually, international) chain, with a command-and-control office in another state. This led to no end of headaches trying to mesh dictates from Home Office with the state regs for our state. Obviously, at a cc, these issues don’t arise.

I was one of the liberal arts faculty at a school that sold itself to students as unadulterated employment-preparation. As a result, student attitudes in the gen ed classes were frequently toxic. At the cc, many students come specifically to take their gen eds, preparatory to transferring to a four-year school to major in whatever. So the students are much easier to handle here.

The for-profit school had academic rank, but it didn’t have tenure. Faculty were evaluated annually, and raises were based on merit. That didn’t make the faculty docile, by any means, but it did mean that the truly horrible ones could be fired, even with seniority. (I remember one who had a habit of nodding off during class, in front of students. After several years of trying in vain to get him to improve, he got fired. Honestly, I didn’t mind.) The definition of merit was always an issue, but student attrition rates were definitely considered. At the cc, we have both a tenure system and a faculty union. Raises are across-the-board and contractual, and independent of performance. It rains on the just and the unjust alike. Most faculty here more than earn their keep, and many are outstanding. But anybody who denies the existence of deadwood is delusional.

One of the biggest day-to-day differences is the pace of change. The for-profit grew too quickly, then shrunk too quickly, and redefined curriculum almost every semester (I’m not kidding). It had a sort of institutionalized attention deficit disorder. More than anything, that drove me nuts. (True and frequent example: Home Office would change a course number the week before classes started, but the registrar’s computer didn’t know that. Chaos ensued.) At the cc, we’re at the opposite extreme. The rule of thumb here is that nothing should ever be done for the first time. The average age of faculty in my department at the for-profit was 40. Here, it’s 59. When I left the for-profit after six years, I was at the midpoint of seniority in my department. Here, the midpoint is about 30 years.

The upside of the for-profit, other than the fact that it actually hired young people for a time, was that the constant churn created opportunities for innovation. For a while, I team-taught a course there that rivaled anything I ever took as an undergrad at my snooty private liberal arts college. Interdisciplinary work was normal, and full-time faculty were called upon to be utility infielders. It was exhausting, but at its best, we were able to get at some educational nitty-gritty there that we just can’t touch here. The tightly-focused mission of the college put a premium on pragmatism, rather than politics, so it wasn’t at all weird to have cooperation between student services, career services, academics, and financial aid at any given moment. (It also meant that amenities like a drama club, or athletics, or a music program, didn’t exist. Too peripheral to the mission.)

At the cc, departmental boundaries are hard, and the mission is diffuse. Combine that with tenure, and internal politics frequently trump pragmatism. An entrenched and difficult personality can defeat a good idea simply by indignant huffing and puffing.

If it were up to me, I’d love to see a college combine the best of both. Keep the summer vacations and the broad mission of the cc, but pick up the pace a bit. Having learned management under the for-profit system, I still sometimes get the bends here. From a faculty perspective, though, there’s no question that the cc is a more hospitable place to be, if it’s actually hiring. There’s the rub.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.