Tuesday, February 12, 2019


“At the end of the day, it’s a business.”

As longtime readers know, I used to work at a DeVry campus.  It was my first full-time job out of grad school. “Virtuous” non-profits were only hiring adjuncts at that point, but DeVry was hiring full-timers.  I couldn’t eat prestige, so I took the gig. I started as faculty, teaching 45 credits per year. After a few years of that, I moved into administration, eventually becoming the Dean of General Education at my local campus.  This was in the late 90’s and early 00’s.

I mention this in response to Thomas Corbett’s piece in IHE this week, in which Corbett -- a former administrator at Kaplan, ITT, and the University of Phoenix rang true.  If anything, he could be accused of being overly diplomatic.

When I was hired to the faculty at DeVry in the late 90’s, it was in rapid-growth mode.  The late 90’s tech boom was in full swing, and anything telecom- or networking-related was hot.  The local campus had been licensed by the state to offer associate degrees, but it wanted to offer bachelor’s degrees, so it went on a small hiring spree of Ph.D. faculty.  For a few years, it grew so rapidly that the administration largely left the faculty alone; they were too busy managing growth to spend time second-guessing what we were doing.  I teamed up with a Yale American Studies Ph.D. to offer a team-taught course on the history of ideas. It’s hard to believe that now, but it’s true.

Several of us advocated loudly, but in vain, for DeVry to capitalize on the boom by raising its admissions and academic standards.  Stop advertising on Ricki Lake, and start marketing as a “real” college with a vocational focus. If you climb the value chain, we argued, you could survive the next dip.  We were dismissed with “at the end of the day, it’s a business.”

I moved into administration after several years.  As I participated in more of the meetings where decisions were made, I saw the profit motive increasingly override everything else.  Arguments that were considered sort of endearing, when I was on faculty, were considered rude and inappropriate from the new role. Worse, in 2001 the tech bubble popped -- anyone remember Y2K? -- and enrollments started dropping.  Suddenly, the benign neglect that had characterized administration-faculty relations during the boom seemed irresponsible; orders came down to crack down on any professors with high drop rates. I argued, foot-dragged, and played for time until I could get out.

When I argued that defaulting to diploma-mill behavior was long-term suicide, I got the same response as before: “at the end of the day, it’s a business.”  I started sending out applications, got a community college job in 2003, and never looked back.

The community college world has different imperatives.  There’s no quarterly earnings level we have to hit to satisfy stockholders, for example.  But here, too, academic integrity often requires some insulation from market-driven austerity.  

Unlike many, I’m not theologically opposed to for-profit education.  But for it to work, I’m convinced that the capital needs to be privately held, rather than publicly traded.  “Patient capital,” as opposed to earnings-chasing, can allow for some insulation from short-term pressures, and therefore for competing on quality.  The stock market is many things, but “patient” is not one of them. In a publicly-traded company, declining enrollments lead to panic and all manner of short-termism.  As evidence, I offer DeVry’s domestic enrollments now, as opposed to when I was there. (Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “Lower Ed” makes a similar argument, drawing on her own experience in both privately-held and publicly-traded for-profits.) The thing about the long term is that it insists on happening, whether you’ve prepared for it or not.

Corbett’s piece is an argument against Secretary DeVos’s deregulatory agenda, particularly around for-profits.  He’s largely correct, but based on experience, I’d suggest that even good regulation may not be able to keep up with the shenanigans as long as the center of gravity is financial.  When people are panicking about losing their jobs, arguments from “quality” can seem airy or self-indulgent. If quality considerations aren’t backed up with something strong, the gravitational pull of short-term earnings will win every time.

Community colleges face their own dilemmas along these lines.  As public appropriations form a progressively smaller share of budgets, and tuition a progressively larger share, the gravitational pull to put enrollment first grows ever stronger.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs applies to institutions, as well as individuals; if we want to change institutional behavior, we need to make sure that they aren’t pushed into survival mode.  If public appropriations can play the role of patient capital, the model can work. But if the appropriations are too small, too unreliable, or too dependent on short-term metrics -- “performance-based funding,” I’m looking at youuuuu -- they wind up pushing in the same directions that the stock market does.

Regulate, yes.  It would be irresponsible not to.  But ultimately, regulation alone can’t be enough to override the imperatives of economic survival.  If we want long-term quality -- and heaven knows, we should -- then we need to fund public higher education well enough that it can hold the line on quality.  Insulation matters; without it, the winds blow awfully cold.