Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

Crossing to the Dark Side? an Interview-Based Comparison of Traditional and For-Profit Higher Education

Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

Crossing to the Dark Side? an Interview-Based Comparison of Traditional and For-Profit Higher Education

Article excerpt


The past year has certainly not been lacking in controversy for the for-profit higher education industry. The fast-growing sector, which now accounts for some 10 percent of all students enrolled in US postsecondary institutions, up from about 6.5 percent as recently as 2007 (and less than 1 percent four decades earlier), has come under unprecedented scrutiny from policymakers, regulators, and the media. (1) Critics have zeroed in on a range of concerns about for-profits, from what are said to be dubious recruiting tactics and overblown promises to students about their future employability to excessive student debt and problematic default rates.

In a representative commentary, the New York Times editorialized in support of tougher federal regulation of for-profits by declaring that new rules must be "strong enough to protect students from unscrupulous schools that strip them of aid, saddle them with crippling debt, and give them nothing in return." (2) For their part, for-profit colleges and universities have deployed a formidable lobbying apparatus to argue that their efforts are being unfairly maligned with apples-to-oranges comparisons that do not do justice to the important education access they provide to previously underserved students.

Largely missing from the debate, however, has been a more fine-grained look at the ways traditional and for-profit institutions differ from one another. How does the experience of instructors and administrators compare and contrast? What about questions of mission and governance? Why do students enroll in for-profit degree programs? In what ways is the culture of for-profit education distinctive? This paper is an effort to examine these questions from the point of view of individuals who have had firsthand experience moving from the traditional to the for-profit sector--or have kept a foot in both.

The people interviewed for this paper--a nonrandom sample of administrators, board members, instructors, and a recent graduate--have all spent time in public or private not-for-profit higher education. All but one are now affiliated either full- or part-time with some of the best-known for-profit institutions: Kaplan University, the University of Phoenix, Capella University, DeVry University, Walden University, and Rasmussen College. Perhaps because of this, they are highly supportive of the mission of for-profits and almost entirely positive about their performance. At the same time, their occasional critical comments suggest that for-profits may be in the kind of shakeout phase common to all disruptive innovations, to use the term coined by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen. (3) According to Christensen, disruptive innovations often experience significant growing pains and quality problems at their outset but improve quickly, create new markets, challenge the status quo, and ultimately have a transformative effect on their sectors. Thus, we can understand the interviewees' "from the trenches" observations and arguments about what for-profits add to the higher-education world not simply as advocacy but as a sign of things to come for a much broader range of postsecondary institutions.

These insiders' comments, drawn from telephone interviews and follow-up email exchanges in the fall of 2010, highlight the characteristics that the respondents say distinguish the for-profits where they work from the nonprofit institutions with which they are also familiar. The interviews suggest that beyond an effort to make profits, these relatively new institutions distinguish themselves by their targeted efforts to serve nontraditional students; their creation of market-driven, career-oriented degree programs; their consistent focus on data collection and measuring learning outcomes; and their willingness to standardize curriculum and faculty roles to a degree that is rare in conventional colleges and universities. Taken individually, none of these approaches is unique to for-profits, of course. …

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