Asking The Right Questions About For Profit Higher Education
“A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them.” — John C. Maxwell
Over at Quartz, commentator Matt Phillips has written a piece called Face it: America’s experiment with for-profit colleges has failed. As someone who has worked in American higher education for a number of years, including for-profit and non-profit institutions, I generally agree with Mr. Phillips that many of the marketing-driven for profit schools that participate in the federal system of guaranteed financial aid are overpriced and unremarkable.
However, as with most articles about higher education written by those who don’t come from our industry, it’s an article painted with too broad a brush. Sure, there are schools like Corinthian’s, but there are also schools like Sullivan University and American Military University that are for profit and participate in the federal financial aid system, yet have earned a good reputation for delivering a decent education at a price that compares with non-profit competitors.
Ultimately I believe that universities should be evaluated the same as people — as individuals rather than as members of a group. That said, if we are going to compare universities by category, I’ve come to wonder whether it might be worthwhile for journalists and commentators to take a look at the relative behavior of schools not based on whether they are for profit or not, but to compare those that are publicly traded with those that are privately held. My guess is that we would see the lion’s share of anti-social behavior at the schools that answer to Wall Street rather than those that answer to an owning family or partnership.
Also worthy of more reporting are those for profit universities accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission that do not particulate in the federal financial aid system, and who have much lower tuition rates as a result. In fact, some of these institutions are among the best values in all of American higher education. Their very existence suggests that guaranteed federal financial aid is a contributing factor in the high cost of going to college, that when that system makes tens of thousands of dollars available to anyone with a signature and a pulse, it introduces an ocean of money that tuition rates then rise to soak up.
But will journalists and commentators who write about American higher education ever go after these higher hanging fruit? One can only hope.