What Makes For-Profit Colleges Different?

, Ethan Gaitz, 2 Comments

Convention has mandated that once a student completes his/her high school studies, one must enroll at a four-year college or university; to begin study at an ivory-tower institution of higher learning marks for many Americans the culmination of a long educational career. To some, such as Michael Roth (current President of Wesleyan University) a liberal arts college experience provides the best assurance that the person who enters Wesleyan (or a similar liberal arts atmosphere) will leave with a completely different modality of perception and belief construction. To Roth, who has espoused the merits of a liberal education for years, the study of a host of disciplines and subjects ensures that students will enter the professional world with an unparalleled analytical acumen. In turn, these young people will be able to confront problems with an “integrative” approach that enables them to fully engage their new cognitive skills in a practical context.

Interestingly, Roth notes that Thomas Jefferson’s initial motivation for establishing his beloved University of Virginia was to challenge the vocational orthodoxy that dominated schools such as Harvard that had “predetermined itineraries.” Roth goes on to write that as “a man of the Enlightenment, [Jefferson] had faith that the diverse forms of learning would improve public and private life.”

Such sentiment may resonate with intellectuals such as Roth, but in an increasingly-competitive labor market, people have begun to question the utility of a holistic (and costly) college education. And although Wesleyan’s enrollment predictions for the foreseeable future may not be bleak, the overall practical applications (or apparent lack thereof) of a liberal arts education has prompted Roth to delve into this topic on an even larger scale in his book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.

As the economy worsens and job prospects continue to remain dim for future college graduates, students are increasingly abandoning the liberal arts in favor of more vocational and ostensibly “practical” forms of education. Convinced that employers are only interested in those who have the readily available skills to maximize their earning potential upon graduation (and thus the revenues for the company), it appears that perhaps the humanities may indeed be in trouble of losing followers. Rather than engage their studies and course selection in an intellectually passionate way, students are forced to view their education as a commodity designed to limit personal costs while maximizing future earning potential, leaving little room for the classics and other stimulating areas of inquiry.

This mentality has spurred the growth of for-profit institutions, many of which offer online classes that help students economize on their education in a way a traditional campus setting cannot.

It is important to note that as outstanding student loan debt rests at approximately $1.11 trillion , enrollment at profit-motivated institutions has increased. “Today, these institutions enroll about 12 percent of all postsecondary students.” This figure which may appear small, is demonstrative of a growing trend within higher education when one considers that in 1980, only 1% of American students were enrolled at a for-profit college. Such a large increase has sparked much public debate and was even the subject of a recent discussion at the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

Noteworthy educational experts convened to discuss the relative strengths and weaknesses of for-profit colleges, with opponents and advocates present. Robert Shireman remarked that there exists a “fundamental difference” between non-profit and for-profit educational institutions. There is a notable distinction with respect to tax treatment, but perhaps the most noteworthy difference is the overall quality of the collegiate experience.

To Shireman, since for-profit schools are purely profit driven, they spend less on instruction as a means to maximize corporate expansion and growth. But to Wallace Boston, President and CEO of American Public University (APU), one advantage of for-profit institutions is that rather than worry about funding cafeterias, sports teams, and dorms, schools such as APU are “allowed to operate as a university first.” The benefit of not operating the aforementioned amenities allows many for-profit schools to direct their resources toward improving quality of instruction and overall academic prestige.

From Shireman’s perspective, profit motivated schools can’t possibly reach the same level of quality since they are beholden to the volition of shareholders, who by all accounts seem only intent on increasing revenues, creating certain “investor pressures that often compromise student and public needs in pursuit of growth and profit.” A firm believer that non-profits operate best, Shireman is convinced in the efficacy of the nondistribution constraint, essentially that since the people on the board of a non-profit have no personal financial incentive to seek accelerated growth and market potential, they can focus on making qualitative improvements.

This may be true, but it was met with resistance from Boston who noted that “non-profit boards can be influenced just as easily as for-profit boards.” State universities are inextricably linked to the governor’s office in that particular state, so the membership of any state university board is directly correlated to the particular person serving as governor. As the political winds change, so too does the operation of the university leaving it susceptible to capricious decision-making and inconsistency.