Keep An Open Mind

Thursday, June 24, 2010
As discussions about the future of for-profit colleges intensify, my email inbox has begun to fill with inquiries. Why haven’t I weighed in? What do I think—is Congress on the right track? What does my recent conspicuous silence portend?

While I’m flattered (and a little confused) by a seeming desire to hear my opinion, the truth is I haven’t been ready to provide one. Over the past few months I’ve spent a lot more time thinking about the for-profits and the tough questions their growing presence in higher education raise. I’ve struggled with an intellectual exercise of sorts, attempting to set aside the financial interests associated with the sector and simply consider whether common objections to the industry would exist even if its colleges were not-for-profit. It’s not easy to sleep at night when wrestling with complex demons like that.

I’ve come to the conclusion that yes, objections would continue. We’d be worried about the quality of what’s being proffered, what students are actually learning, how hard the colleges are working to recruit students not really ready for college work, how much debt folks are graduating with relative to their new income, etc.

Here’s the rub: We should have the same concerns about our current public and private non-profit institutions of higher education. Many of us do have these concerns. We are just less vocal about them, perhaps because it is so much easier to object to treating people badly while making a buck, compared to treating people badly while not making a buck.

Our concerns are well placed, but they are also too narrow. We are looking for trouble only under a single lamplight, simply because that’s the spot illuminated. We need to look more broadly. There is a reason enrollment in the for-profit sector is growing, and it has at least partly to do with student demand. Our public colleges and universities aren’t sufficiently equipped to do the job—and blame for that is shared by states and localities, institutions, researchers, and taxpayers. It’s a little hard to know where the buck stops in that situation. It’s not so hard in the case of for-profits—so we disparage them more easily.

I’m not saying I’ve become a fan of the for-profits, or that my worries about how they are serving students have been allayed. Admittedly, the more I learn, the more I become somewhat more impressed--for example, by the innovative efforts of some to help transfer students and older students find a more fluid and efficient way to a credential. There are some examples of that kind of work at public institutions, but it feels a bit less "outside the box."

The current discussion in D.C. is worth having. It needs to be broadened and deepened. More voices need to enter the conversation. It’s in the interest of students all over the country for it to continue.