Tuesday, August 30, 2016

For-Profits Cutting Corners in Higher Education: Distinguishing Vocational and Educational as a Solution

In my hometown, a local college decided to become a university. Not that the institution was expanding; the draw was tuition money from foreign students whose governments required that aid be given only to foreign universities. So overnight, departments became colleges. The underlying mentality, I submit, is that of forsaking what an institution is and so claiming to be something it’s not in order to get more money. In short, the underlying mentality is more, more, more, even if this means being something an institution is not. The change comes off as pretentious and greedy. The mentality is also in the mix when for-profit colleges take advantage of the U.S. student-loan program to the extent that they become financially dependent on the subsidized loans. Furthermore, some for-profits turn non-profit as a way to avoid oversight without losing the financial benefits of being for-profit. The trend points to an increasing decadence in American higher-education. The good news is that between 2011 and 2016, the enrollments at the major non-profit schools dropped by more than half; the “pullback came as the government clamped down on aggressive recruiting practices and stricter policies intended to ensure that schools are preparing students for gainful employment.”[1] Even the assumption that the purpose of a college is to train students for jobs rather than educate to make students knowledgeable. I suspect that the latter mission ironically makes for better hires among graduates.

Sadly, it is not uncommon for new students to decide on a major based on the sort of job they want after they graduate. This orientation willows down education artificially to that which fits with employer needs. While such a concern has a place in the professional schools, it does not fit higher education itself. Part of the problem may be that jobs-oriented majors (and schools) are housed alongside other majors (and schools) in American universities. In the E.U., the cleft is more pronounced institutionally. The American case risks a reductionism of higher education to vocationalism. Ideally, criteria appropriate to each should have their proper place at the American universities such that like fits with like. Whereas the practice of public accounting should have a place in the accounting major of a business school, such vocational concerns should not extend to majors in the humanities, for instance; a student doesn’t major in classics because getting prepared for a job is the motive. The bottom-line may be a lack of faith in higher education itself as a social good, including being of value to students in terms of knowledge as an end in itself.
To the for-profit “universities’” managements, I would point to the consistency between such a university being profit-oriented and the criteria being the preparation of hires in the for-profit workplace. It would make sense were such “universities” limited to the professional schools rather than having majors in the liberal arts and sciences, but the mentality is not one of self-limitation, but, rather, maximization, even if it means trying to have something both ways.
In a clear decision on August 11, 2016, for example, the U.S. Department of Education took aim at the sordid mentality in denying a request by the Center for Excellence in Higher Education, a Utah-based college, to convert to nonprofit status for financial-aid purposes. Because board chairman Carl Barney was the main financial beneficiary of the college, the college was private rather than non-profit. The college would continue to face the higher regulatory scrutiny that goes with being a for-profit college; such a college “cannot derive more that 90% of its revenue from Title IV federal student-aid funds.”[2]
That a mentality of “wanting it both ways” was at least part of what the government was going after is clear from the Education Secretary’s comments. John King said, “This should send a clear message to anyone who things converting to nonprofit status is a way to avoid oversight while hanging onto the financial benefits: Don’t waste your time.”[3] That the college’s chief executive, Eric Juhlin, characterized the government’s decision as “arbitrary, capricious and unlawful” suggests that the administration did not get the message.[4] It would seem that wanting to keep the proverbial cake and yet eat it too is a sordid mentality that resists self-awareness even though it reduces credibility and thus has real costs. I submit that such a mentality can harm higher education more generally because corners tend to be cut even as the cutters remain in denial.
Fortunately, a federal crackdown on for-profit colleges had been taking place, such that in early September, 2016, ITT Technical Institute “abruptly closes more than 130 campuses, forcing more than 40,000 students . . . to begin looking for another school.”[5] The U.S. Government had banned the college from enrolling new students receiving federal aid. In short, the college had been too oriented to student loans and not enough oriented to training its students such that they could find employment. Put another way, ITT, and Corinthian Colleges, which faced liquidation a few months before, paid scant attention to their respective missions because making more money was the true mission.
Perhaps part of the problem with for-profit colleges has to do with the conflating of vocational and educational missions at non-profit universities that sport both professional schools and colleges of liberal arts and sciences. In the E.U., vocational training is institutionalized apart from the universities. Perhaps restricting for-profit colleges in the U.S. to being vocational-training centers would provide a fit for those institutions. Student loans would not apply as they would not be colleges or universities. By extension, professional schools at the non-profit universities would stress the application (and thus knowledge) of the basic disciplines. This orientation is practiced at Yale’s professional schools, especially its divinity and law schools. Were other universities to follow suit, we could distinguish those professional schools from the for-profit training centers.  Students could go “straight knowledge” in colleges of liberal arts and science, “application of such knowledge to practical pursuits” in university professional-schools, or “training in skills” at vocational training centers.

[1] Mellisa Korn, “Loan Curbs Shut College,” The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2016.

[2] Melissa Korn, “U.S.: For-Profit College Can’t Become Nonprofit,” The Wall Street Journal, August 12, 2016.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Korn, “Loan Curbs Shut College.”