Sunday, March 10, 2019

Thoughts on Argosy

Argosy University, a well-known formerly for-profit university known for graduate programs in psychology and related disciplines, is either dead or dying, depending on the information source.  This comes two years after a deeply weird buyout and conversion to nominally nonprofit status by the Dream Center, a move that I found mystifying at the time.

Tressie McMillan Cottom pointed out on Twitter that most of its students are graduate students, often pursuing doctorates.  Accreditation issues aside -- and that’s saying a lot -- that makes subsequent transfer much harder than it would be for most undergraduates.  Graduate programs don’t typically take courses in transfer at all. And if they do, they insist on their own comprehensive exams and dissertations.  In practice, that means that many students will lose recognition for everything they’ve done in their programs; at most, they might be able to get loan forgiveness.  

At least at the undergraduate level, there’s a common practice of transfer, and of credit by examination.  At the graduate level, each program is bespoke.

It’s terrible for the students, obviously, and I’d bet that many of the faculty and staff tried to do legitimate work.  That was certainly true in my time at DeVry. But the model, even with a subsequent surface-level retrofit as not-for-profit, had a decided center of gravity.  

I never understood the alleged conversion.  The chain had so much baggage that simply declaring one day that it was nonprofit didn’t seem likely to matter.  In fact, it didn’t.

Secretary DeVos seems to believe that the solution to the dilemmas around higher education in America is deregulation.  But Argosy shows what happens when regulators let the good times roll. I’ll suggest a three-part strategy that’s much more likely to work.

First, adequately fund public higher education.  If you don’t do this, the rest won’t matter. Flooding the zone with good, affordable public options will squeeze out space for shady operators.  Scammers succeed by first identifying a need. Take away the need, and you’ll choke off the scammers’ air supply. Make the need worse by continuing to bleed the publics dry, and you open up space for new scammers.  

Yes, that costs some money upfront.  But bailouts aren’t free, and neither are sweeping loan forgiveness programs.  At least this way, you’ll be doing some good in the world. If students seeking opportunity find flexible, high-quality, available, understandable, affordable opportunities on the public side, they’ll take them.

Second, regulate.  I’ve written before that for-profit education, if it’s going to exist as a positive force, requires “patient capital.”  To me, that means getting it off the stock markets. Require it to be privately held, and severely curtail the options to sell.  If you can build a value-adding operation from the ground up and sustain it by building a series of better mousetraps, go for it.  But “pump and dump” or “cut and run” or any of the other scorched-earth ways of making money have no place in education.

Third, start treating higher education as a system, rather than as a confederation.  That’s a much taller order, but again, it offers the possibility of real improvement.  That means taking a systemwide look at funding, at programmatic gaps, and at transfer pathways.  

If we did all of those things, there wouldn’t be so many unmet needs for scammers to exploit.  People could still make money, but only if they managed to compete on quality. And instead of these hellaciously expensive ballouts and write-offs, we could actually budget.  

Or we can wait a few months for the next massive system failure.  

In the meantime, my condolences to the affected students, faculty, and staff.  Even if the overall organization was shady, many of the people on the front lines weren’t.  Here’s hoping that as a sector, we don’t add insult to injury by stigmatizing them.