I read with great interest Peter’s informative and well-balanced articles on the for-profit colleges. He certainly doesn’t stint at pointing out the downsides of these institutions:
The for-profit universities have identified a very lucrative market niche in going after these left-behind students, but it is a niche that lasts only so long as there are large amounts of loose federal dollars available through our student-loan system for individuals who have a combination of poor academic preparation, little sign of academic aptitude, poor credit risk, and time on their hands. Some of these students do indeed beat the odds. They attend the for-profit degree programs, gain real skills, and get started on a worthwhile career ladder. But so far, it looks like a large majority of students in these programs end up floundering—and deeper in debt.
Regarding what he sees as positives, however, I would like to make a few points.
Peter sees the for-profits bringing an institutional flexibility to higher education in general. For one thing, many for-profits are more straightforwardly vocational and less likely to cumber students with feeble minded humanities and social science requirements that are thinly disguised leftwing propaganda. But the present non-profit system is doing quite a lot of vocational training already, and it’s not clear that the for-profits are so unencumbered. The fashion merchandising bachelor’s at one for-profit requires 60 credits of liberal arts requirements and electives. The Fashion Institute of Technology requires 37. I haven’t checked if the credits are point-for-point comparable, but these figures at least indicate a similarity in liberal arts requirements. If the for-profits are going to grant a bachelor’s degree, there are certain requirements, and if they are stripping down such courses to mere pro-forma fulfillment of the degree requirements, so much the worse.
In addition, a few of the for-profit programs that Peter mentions, such as teaching how to schedule entertainment events or repair boats or drive and manage a tractor trailer, provide skills that might well be obtained on the employment ladder or through continuing education or specialized training outside of the college environment altogether. That probably goes for the non-profit vocational programs too, but it sounds as if the for-profits want to provide collegiate certification for every kind of work, necessitating substantial tuition payments and federal loans. Another point to consider is that vocational education outside of the workplace can become dated, as happened in the public schools years ago.
Furthermore, are we so sure pure vocational training is best? Which would be better, someone getting just the straightforward skill set for a job (with evidently no guarantee of the job at the end of the training), or someone who is also going to take some courses in history, literature, or the arts? Of course we know about leftwing bias and the degradation of liberal arts education, but there are still some good teachers and some good courses out there, and we do care in a democracy that our citizens have some knowledge of our cultural heritage--at least if we are going to call what they are paying for “higher education.”
Another aspect of the for-profits that Peter finds commendable is that they are not cluttered with the many frills of the non-profits, such as spa-like accommodations or multiculturalism counselors. But the money that does not go for those things are probably the “profits” that go to the “investors” and also toward what I gather are substantial administrative salaries. I don’t believe there is any particular saving for the student, as tuition at the for-profits seems to be as high as at many of the non-profits. One for-profit that I checked online charges almost $7000 a quarter; for a comparable amount, a student could attend many of the non-profits, and if there are some amenities like gyms or swimming pools, or a bit of grass to sit on to discuss Plato in nice weather, what’s wrong with that? (I’ll grant that what is spent on diversity discussions and the like is a waste, but not all extras are worthless.) Taxpayers are essentially footing the bill for enormous loans to students who eventually default at four times the rate of students in the non-profits, in order to send dividends to “investors.” This does not seem right to me.
Peter also makes a familiar argument, that many of the criticisms we can make of the for-profits can also be made of the non-profits (“except perhaps,” he adds dryly, for “the efficiency with which [the for-profits] exploit the federal loan system.”) But while true, this is not a good argument. Because one thing has fallen into disrepute, doesn’t mean we should wink at another thing replicating the disreputable aspects of the first. If our old grandmother gradually falls into dissipation, taking to the bottle and watching television instead of telling us stories and baking us cookies, we don’t look at her as we would a complete stranger barging into our house to drink and watch soap operas all day.
I have no doubt many for-profits are doing good work, employing excellent teachers, and providing valuable education, but the whole idea has to be more strenuously questioned.
I realize too that we in NAS and her offshoot organizations are very critical if not contemptuous of what higher education has become at the hands of the feminists, postmodernists, left-liberals, etc., and rightly so, but that does not mean that the proffered alternatives necessarily deserve our support, or that we should give up on efforts to reform the existing system.