Thursday, November 08, 2018

Discussing For-Profits at Princeton

On Wednesday I had the opportunity to attend a screening of “Fail State” at Princeton, and to participate in a panel discussion afterwards.  It’s a terrific documentary about for-profit colleges, in which community colleges play the role of the good guy. The director, Alex Shebanow, was there, along with Michael Vasquez from the Chronicle, Yan Cao from the Century Foundation, and Zakiya Smith-Ellis, the Secretary of Higher Education for New Jersey.

If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out.  It just got released to several streaming services, so it’s easy to find.  

That said, there was something slightly surreal about watching it at Princeton, which is about as far removed from for-profits and community colleges as any university in America.  

The president of a small, local for-profit college attended the screening, and mounted a vocal challenge to the movie and the panel towards the end of the q-and-a.  It was fascinating, and a bit familiar from my DeVry days. He started with the usual moral umbrage, but then turned to the kinds of headline numbers that people in the industry know are misleading.  (“What’s your graduation rate?”) He moved to a “this is too broad a brush” argument, trying to reduce a structural critique to a “some bad apples” argument. He even threw in a few whoppers, one of which I called him out on in the moment.  

Zakiya Smith-Ellis had the perfect response.  If it’s true that you’re one of the good guys, she challenged, then you should welcome tough regulation.  It would eliminate the bad actors, so anyone who survived could be assumed to be good. In other words, regulation can establish the trust on which a functioning market relies.

Yes.  Exactly that.  That’s exactly right.  That’s what so many students of for-profits assumed.  They were often incorrect, with severe economic and personal consequences.  But they had good reason to assume it. It makes sense. We should make it true.

My best line of the night was, characteristically, in reference to The Boy.  I mentioned that until recently, the only difference he would have known between the University of Phoenix and the University of Chicago is that Phoenix sounds warmer.  If you aren’t close to someone who knows the field pretty well, it’s a perfectly understandable response. (As one burned student in the movie put it, “a college is a college, right?”)  If we can’t assume that everybody has fine-grained insider knowledge, then strong regulation is the next best thing.

Fail State and “Lower Ed” would make a great compare-and-contrast exercise.  “Lower Ed” (by Tressie McMillan Cottom) focuses largely on for-profit graduate programs, and takes the view that students applying to them knew pretty much what was going on, but made rational calculations that getting the letters after their names was worth it.  They see “credentialism” as a hustle, but decide that it’s worth trying to win. Fail State focuses on undergrad programs, and shows students as largely clueless, until they suddenly, abruptly, aren’t. Worse, when they discover that their degrees aren’t what they thought they were, they often blame themselves.

Both strike me as true.  

It wasn’t until my third viewing of Fail State that I could pinpoint the moment that things went wrong.  It was in 1972, when the Feds moved from a model of sending aid to colleges to sending aid to students. The theory was empowerment, but the result was the precise opposite.  If you can’t tell the University of Chicago from the University of Phoenix, a nice admissions rep from the latter will be happy to sign you up today. Forcing public colleges to compete with each other creates openings for others to exploit.  And they did.

Thanks to Princeton for hosting what must have seemed like a delegation from another universe, to Alex Shebanow for a wonderful film, and to Zakiya Smith-Ellis for encapsulating an entire worldview in about four sentences.  I hope she doesn’t mind if I trot that one out myself from time to time...