Crossing to the dark side?
An interview-based comparison of traditional and for-profit higher education

Article Highlights

  • What can for-profit higher education teach the traditional sector?

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  • Higher ed for-profits emphasize faculty's instruction, not research

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  • Why leave a tenured position at a respected university to teach at a for-profit?

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Crossing to the dark side?

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In the past year, for-profit higher education providers have been thrust into the spotlight. The fastest growing postsecondary sector has come under unprecedented scrutiny from policymakers, regulators, and the media. Critics have zeroed in on a range of concerns, from perceived dubious recruiting tactics and overblown promises about students’ future employability to excessive student debt and problematic default rates. For their part, for-profits 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 detailed look at how traditional and for-profit institutions differ in important areas like administration, instructor experience, mission and governance, data collection and use, and student recruitment and retention. This paper is an effort to get beyond sensationalized headlines and examine these questions from the point of view of individuals who have moved from the traditional to the for-profit sector—or kept a foot in both. These insiders highlighted a variety of characteristics they say distinguish the for-profits where they work from the nonprofit institutions with which they are also familiar.

Trial, Error, and Measurement. Perhaps the biggest appeal of for-profits for those who have joined the sector is that they are relatively new postsecondary institutions—works in progress in which experimentation is encouraged and inevitable. Entrepreneurial for-profits can move much faster to create new programs, adjust staffing levels, and change curricula, according to Geri Malandra, a former University of Texas administrator and now provost of Kaplan University. “I was amazed at how quickly program suggestions can be developed and brought online,” she says. “In a regular university it’s very hard to add faculty positions; it can be done, but it’s hard. . . . [At Kaplan] it can be done relatively easily if there are strong market reasons.”

Rethinking the Faculty’s Role. As a result of for-profit institutions’ reliance on trial and error, a heavily standardized curriculum, and responsiveness to consumer demand, their faculty tends to look quite different from those at many traditional not-for-profit institutions. First and foremost, they are instructors rather than researchers. “At DeVry we’re hiring people who want to teach,” says Harold Shapiro, former president of Princeton University and the University of Michigan and current board chairman for DeVry. For-profits also do something unusual in many traditional colleges and universities: they evaluate prospective hires on their teaching skills and give new instructors explicit pedagogical training. Once on the payroll, interviewees noted that for-profit instructors are evaluated much more systematically than their peers in traditional academia.

Practical Instruction and Student Support. Interviewees noted that for-profits often hire working professionals or retired college instructors to teach courses with a relentlessly practical emphasis. Jim Goes, a former professor at two traditional institutions who now teaches online at the University of Phoenix and Walden University, says helping students think through the kinds of real-world problems they encounter in their workplaces makes his teaching at for-profits distinct from the other classes he has taught. “These are people who have life experience; they’re not twenty-somethings reading about business in a book,” he says. “They’re forty-somethings who have a lot of practical experience, who are trying to improve their lives.” Since for-profits also enroll a higher proportion of nontraditional and at-risk students, they must provide more intensive student support services and flexible course options.

Quality Concerns and Governance. Those interviewed were generally quick to acknowledge some serious problems in the for-profit sector while underscoring that nontraditional students often face comparable difficulties and frequently experience poor outcomes in conventional institutions. “There certainly seem to be some abuses going on,” Goes says, “but these institutions have been reaching an audience and a market that traditional education could not.” When it comes to governance, more structural similarities exist than outsiders might imagine because for-profits must maintain certain structures and internal processes to comply with higher education accreditation requirements.

For-profits will certainly need to work hard to prove their worth as they remain in the regulatory and media spotlight for the foreseeable future. But the observations and experiences of those interviewed suggest that traditional colleges and universities will be badly mistaken if they assume that the travails of for-profits today mean that useful lessons cannot be drawn from their successes to date—and those likely to occur in the future.

Ben Wildavsky ([email protected]) is a senior scholar in research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation.

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