Magazine article University Business

Improving Our Discourse on For-Profit Colleges: These Schools Are Playing Critical Roles in Higher Education

Magazine article University Business

Improving Our Discourse on For-Profit Colleges: These Schools Are Playing Critical Roles in Higher Education

Article excerpt

MOST DISCUSSIONS ON the rise of for-profit colleges begin and end with an arbitrary moral judgment that there's something inherently wrong with for-profit colleges, or an unfounded assertion that these institutions offer inferior academic programs.

It has been almost 30 years since University of Phoenix--and, arguably, for-profit, degree-granting, regionally accredited institutions--began. In 2005, more than 500,000 students will attend such schools for their bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degrees. While dismissed by traditional IHEs as uninformed consumers, thousands of students are using their free-market choice to endorse for-profit colleges.

The for-profit education industry is the investment community's shining star. But our collective analysis of the effectiveness of these schools should move beyond the initial fear and largely unsupported accusations. Few critics stop to consider that most college athletic programs and the campus amenities race direct far greater resources away from learning than the 12- to 18-percent profit margins of proprietary colleges.

A more meaningful dialogue of legitimate questions about for-profit colleges is required because much is at stake. Consider some of the critical roles that for-profits are now taking in higher education:

* Accessible institution. For-profit institutions are increasingly assuming the role once occupied by public institutions in providing access to higher education for thousands of underserved minority and lower-income students. The baby boomers' youngest children are beginning to enter college and many public institutions lack the capacity to accept additional students. Others are seizing the chance to become more selective regardless of their historical mission. A disturbing result of this admissions landscape, as studies have shown: Fewer first-generation college students are being admitted to traditional colleges. For-profit colleges are, for many students, the best option for a college education and the chance to improve their socio-economic condition.

* Innovation driver. The free-market incentive of for-profit institutions makes them uniquely suited to drive innovation in higher ed. Venture capital is virtually unheard of at most nonprofit institutions (other than specific grant funding usually designated to activities other than student learning), but the financial investment of for-profits has resulted in vastly improved learning experiences and resources.

For example, research has shown that these schools invest in college prep courses, better financial aid and information systems, smart classrooms, higher quality online platforms, and academic support systems and software. Additionally, for-profits have made significant contributions to the development of weekend, accelerated, evening, and online-learning formats, making higher education more accessible to adults and first-generation students.

* Alternative degree provider. The programs offered at for-profit institutions have dramatically changed the quality of options for students who once faced a stark choice between a traditional education and a technical degree. For-profits have produced programs that allow students studying graphic arts, allied health, culinary arts, and other career and professional fields to receive a college experience including general education and the liberal arts rather than just traditional technical training. …

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