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.