For-Profit Higher Education: A Social and Historical Analysis

By Beaver, William | Sociological Viewpoints, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

For-Profit Higher Education: A Social and Historical Analysis


Beaver, William, Sociological Viewpoints


Abstract

This article explores the recent rise in prominence of for-profit higher education in the United States by examining the historical and social forces including changing social and economic values that favor commercial ventures and marketplace solutions along with shifts in government policy that prompted the current popularity and growth of the for-profit sector. From a theoretical perspective, conflict theory provides the most compelling explanation of the recent popularity of for-profits as pro-business elites mobilized not only to promote these schools but also to change perceptions of higher education itself. The article also examines for-profits in terms of the credentialing system and how for-profit institutions have attempted to mesh with and utilize the system to their advantage, which also helps to explain their growth and popularity.

Perhaps the most significant and controversial development in American higher education in the past two decades has been the rise of the for-profit college and university. Approximately 10 percent of post-secondary students now attend a for-profit institution in what has become a $48 billion a year industry (Blumenstyk 2005b). The U.S. Department of Education now lists over 800 for-profits that have received state, regional, or professional accreditation and many grant degrees from the associate to the doctoral level. Although the degree granting/accredited sector is still small accounting for about 2.5 percent of the total college enrollments, its growth rate has been impressive - approximately 8 percent a year compared to 2 percent for higher education as a whole (Blumenstyk 2005a). In addition, they are beginning to provide competition for the traditional non-profit sector in certain student niches. The best known of the for-profits is the University of Phoenix, which claims to be the largest private university in the country with nearly 300,000 students enrolled.

These kinds of numbers have certainly caused the traditional academic world and Wall Street to take notice. Indeed, any number of articles and books have appeared that attempt to analyze the growing prominence of for-profits. Much of the research that has been conducted has tended to take an economic, educational, or business approach to understanding the phenomena (Berg 2005; Kelly 2001; Kirp 2003; Ruch 2001; Winston 1999). It is not that this research is not valuable, the problem is that for the most part it has not addressed the larger historical and social forces involved that could provide a more comprehensive understanding. To do so, this article will briefly examine the past history of for-profits and utilize Durkheim's (1977) basic insight that educational systems change and ultimately reflect the dominant values of a society during a given historical period. I will then analyze the contemporary situation paying particular attention to the changing political environment in Washington that has benefited for-profits. Finally, the last section of the paper will examine how for-profits have attempted to fit into the credentialing system of higher education.

THEORETICAL PERSPECTIVES

To further enhance our understanding of the current for-profit phenomena, the article will intertwine the historical and more contemporary analysis with the relevant theoretical perspectives. For example, functionalist theorists argue that higher education improves opportunities by providing knowledge and skills, which allows individuals to become more productive and successful members of a society, and, in the process, allows modern societies to operate more smoothly (Parsons 1959). The functionalist position raises an important question which is explored in this article. Specifically, does for-profit higher education improve the opportunities and earnings potential of those students attending these institutions?

In contrast to functionalism, cultural and social reproduction theorists believe that the ultimate purpose of education is to reproduce the social class structure. …

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