Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Future of For-Profits

I have a close, longtime friend who has lived the mixed blessing of getting what she has wanted, when she has wanted it. Luckily for her, she generally has good taste, but she has boxed herself into corners a few times when circumstances refused to conspire to save her from herself.

I’m thinking that the last couple of years are conspiring to save for-profit higher ed from itself.

Having worked in both the for-profit and community college worlds, I’ve been arguing for years that the right move for the for-profits is to go upscale. Apparently, they’re starting to figure this out for themselves, even if only as the result of newfound Federal scrutiny.

Historically, for-profits arose in the gaps of traditional higher ed, focusing primarily on the fields that traditional colleges either ignored or neglected. That made some sense at the time. But since then, the non-profits have greatly expanded their coverage, and the for-profits have greatly expanded their offerings to chase enrollments; at this point, the programmatic overlap between the sectors is substantial. Some for-profits have even earned regional accreditation (and others, horrifyingly enough, have bought it.)

Now that they’re offering many of the same courses of study as community colleges and the midtier state colleges of the world, the for-profits are finding it difficult to compete. For a while, many of them managed by taking all manner of ethical liberties with financial aid packaging and deceptive recruiting; the Feds, rightly, have made that more difficult.

They’ll never be able to compete on cost. Community and state colleges are subsidized and, just as importantly, untaxed; for-profits are taxed and unsubsidized. (Proponents of public higher ed rightly note that the subsidies aren’t what they once were, but they often fail to note that the tax exemptions remain.) Yes, for-profits can minimize the taxation issue with online offerings -- property taxes don’t apply to cyberspace -- but the publics can go online, too.

The way to compete is on value, as opposed to price. This is where the for-profits can escape the ethical and legal issues they’ve caused for themselves, set up a lucrative niche, and even expand.

That would actually mirror the way that privatization works in most other industries. Most of the time, “public” offerings are considered less desirable than private ones. Public housing, public transportation, and public schools are generally -- with exceptions, yes, but generally -- considered inferior to their private counterparts. I don’t see any obvious reason that for-profit higher ed couldn’t try the same strategy.

Granted, it would have a hard time competing on academic prestige, at least initially. But by combining programmatic focus with a year-round schedule and concierge-level staffing in career services, it could offer a pretty compelling value proposition. And by being selective, it could screen out the high-default populations and avoid the ethical traps into which the sector as a whole tends to fall. It’s one thing to object to boiler-room sales tactics and shoddy curricula; it’s quite another to object to specialization and good service.

In fact, a high end proprietary could become known for its high academic standards. If it could truthfully market its grads to employers as being among the best in a given industry, it would have a legitimate selling point for prospective students.

The ethics of it all are debatable, but to the extent that they actually chose to compete on quality, I’d argue that the rest of the industry would have to step up. Bottom-feeding is insane when you’re competing with institutions with built-in cost advantages, and you can only run on the boiler room model for so long. The way up is the way out. The for-profits are being forced to figure this out; the winners will be the ones who lean into the change.