Helping Ourselves

Wednesday, May 26, 2010
There's a bit of an uproar in California over an arrangement between the for-profit Kaplan University and the California Community College Chancellor's Office that makes it possible for students locked out of community college courses to enroll in a Kaplan course at a reduced rate. The arrangement stems from the overcrowding and under-resourcing of the California community college system, which is nothing less than under siege. Of course, it also stems from a completely sensible desire of Kaplan to expand its reach and enrollment. The California State Legislature, by failing to adequately support its community colleges, created that opportunity. Kaplan is doing exactly what we'd expect any educator to do--responding to student demand. We denigrate that action only because it will also result in profits. Let's at least be honest about that.

To me the really distasteful part of the backlash against Kaplan comes from those who are outraged that an agreement was reached to ensure the transferability of credits--an arrangement in which faculty were not consulted. Faculty members are used to being consulted on which courses they will and will not accept. Professors like to sign off on what courses can count to "replace" theirs--seemingly because they want to ensure educational quality, but let's face it, it's also because it helps to protect their jobs. The more courses deemed transferrable, the more it will become clear that the current system is inefficient--if many courses equate with each other, why have so many different people in different places teaching them?

But undergraduate education isn't meant to serve faculty; it's meant to serve students. This is something people seem to ready to forget. The president of the Academic Senate of the California Community Colleges was quite straightforward about her priorities when she told a reporter, "I'm hard pressed to see where we could...make this favorable to faculty." Huh? Since when is ensuring the continuation of a degree, and the portability of credits, meant to be about helping the faculty?

I get it--this move opens the door to a lot of scary possibilities. One is that Kaplan and other for-profits will fulfill a need and let the Legislature off the hook in future funding of state higher education. The degree to which we treat that as negative should be at least partly informed by empirical evidence on how California's community college students fare at Kaplan. Kaplan is to be commended for providing the data to allow a study on that topic to take place, and Scott Lay, president of the Community College League of California is a smart guy to recognize that as a real opportunity. Make that commitment a real one, and assess the outcomes of the arrangement. Then we'll have something more solid with which to pass judgment: evidence on how this affects students.