In Defense of For-Profit Colleges

college students using laptop in classroom on white background

As a director of military education programs for a not-for-profit, private college, I would seem to be the most unlikely person to defend for-profit colleges. Admittedly, some of the tactics for-profit colleges have used are beyond the pale and utterly indefensible. Buying regional accreditation through purchasing tiny floundering and bankrupt religious colleges is hardly transparent. The legitimacy of a college can’t be purchased despite the best efforts money can buy to set a stage for a college to sell itself as a traditional, historic college experience. Providing $100 gift cards to government employees as a “thank you” for inviting the college they represent to an education fair should only be defended in a judicial court. Enrolling traumatic brain injury-wounded warriors into an online program without providing necessary support for that wounded warrior to even have a chance of success, in my opinion, borders on the criminal as well. Dismal completion rates, poor job placement of the few graduates who make it through the college, maximum student loan debt ratios and repeated Department of Education fines for everything from outright Pell Grant fraud to nefarious recruitment practices leaves little to defend; however, it would behoove all institutions to look critically at what for-profit colleges are doing right, before dismissing them altogether.

Perhaps the primary lens which people use to view and pass judgment on for-profit institutions is the whole concept of distance learning. That is:  Can an online education possibly produce graduates as intelligent and competent as a brick-and-mortar institution?  Having worked as a course and content developer in both academic and corporate settings, I will be the first to let you in on a little secret—the internet isn’t a fad that is going away. That would seem obvious to most, but you would be surprised at how many legislators on Capitol Hill need a course or two on distance education and the “internets.”  Legislation is typically not proactive but reactive to abuses which have already occurred. It typically addresses a future state without a full comprehension of the past, as defined by an accurate portrayal of the present. The reality is that education enhanced through technology is here to stay. In fact, it is becoming the new norm, even as futurists have to concede that the use of desktop/laptop computers and the concepts of web surfing, research and online learning will be as snail mail is to e-mail within two decades and as the pony express is to texting within three.

Schedules: Give up a decent job to maybe get a good job.

For-profit, online institutions offer greater flexibility, and a more realistic and timely curriculum, to the working professional. Education institutions do a poor job of self-auditing and updating their curriculum to match the current job climate. This results in Structural Unemployment among graduates. If you want to be selected for a job today, you ought to have OTJ training and/or a degree which relates to the type of job tasks required.  Online schools, which tend to be a better fit for servicemembers and working professionals with “challenging” schedules, also tend to do a better job offering degrees and courses which directly relate to jobs. You won’t find many online institutions encouraging arts degrees over health degrees, and the list probably goes on and on. There are several possible reasons why this may be the case. First, online institutions tend to hire professors who are working professionals in their field not tenured faculty members who have been teaching the same content for 40 years. Second, students seeking an online degree tend to be working already and are primarily interested in a degree leading to a new career or career advancement—they’re not your typical 18-year-old freshman, wide-eyed and lacking experience. This requires a different mindset altogether among institutions.

Which format, online or traditional, is more feasible to the worker already vocationally occupied 40+ hours per week?  Institutions that understand that students are not going to quit their jobs or risk losing their jobs because of missed work days in order to fill seats in a classroom every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 8am to 9am are leading the way in reforming education. Is 8am to 9am the time real learning goes on or is it occurring when students are able to engage instructional content absent of the distractions of work and family?  How much learning goes on when students are struggling to find a parking spot on campus?  Yet, traditional brick-and-mortar schools fought against and criticized the validity of online learning for decades, or at least until they could get their own servers up and running. Why did it take so long for them to come aboard?  Well, part of the reason is because they had to wait for the retirement of those tenured faculty members who had refused to use a computer. Progress through attrition is a slower growth model than progress through action, and for-profit, online colleges which emulate the business world also emulate the nimbleness of that world.

Also, the traditional semester schedule with lengthy summer, spring and winter breaks actually is structured around an agrarian calendar. Students needed to leave that “funny business” of college to get home and help Pa harvest the crops. Even today, though, most traditional colleges cling to and build faculty contracts around the antiquated system. For-profit and online colleges, on the other hand, build their schedules like a business with quarter structures or classes starting almost monthly. That’s the type of system where the non-traditional student can thrive.

Let’s review what you already know.

The world of work and the world of academia rarely step in sync with one another. The rapid expansion of technology during the last 20-30 years is an excellent example of this failed synchronization. To keep pace with student and industry demand as well as commensurate knowledge of faculty, institutions began hiring faculty lacking the traditional degree, as there weren’t many IT degree granting institutions, but there were a plethora of degreeless working professionals. They hired the IT professional to teach students because a traditional degree couldn’t keep pace with the exponential growth occurring in the field. The pressure to accommodate prospective students, wide-eyed at the prospect of starting their own dot com, forced institutions to pay these degreeless faculty members the equivalent of their most degreed and distinguished faculty members.

I would posit that this disconnect is systemic in academia. While it is seen less in the above example, it’s fairly common when it comes to a prospective student’s prior learning, training, military experience and professional portfolio. From a student perspective, while traditional brick-and-mortar schools are only now really exploring the potential of Prior Learning Assessment (PLA), colleges designed to deliver primarily online have been perfecting the processes for years. If you were a student, which college are you more likely to attend:  the one which starts you out in Freshman 101 or the one that granted you 16 semester hours for PLA?  In my own niche of academia, as the Director of a Military Education Program, I have the opinion that boot camp was likely much more difficult than the physical education I was forced to take in college:  bowling, fencing and racquetball. So long as a college adheres to American Council on Education (ACE) or the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) or some other likewise reputable organization’s standards, the recent practice of PLA is a very valid method for awarding credit to students and shortening their overall time in college by reviewing content they already know quite well from real life experience.

How has playing on the second string football team of your college’s Division III team advanced your career?

Aside from one for-profit institution which purchased the local country club to prop up sports teams for a handful of propped up, nearly full-ride scholarship, resident students, most online, for-profit institutions don’t focus on extracurricular activities which don’t directly relate to a degree and future employment—sports medicine excluded. Traditional colleges, under tremendous budget constraints, are only now beginning to realize this fact and are starting to cut programs which have failed to prove their value to the job-seeking graduate. Many were waiting for the opportunity provided by economic stress to circumnavigate faculty senates, unions, parliamentary procedures and bureaucratic barriers to revitalize and align their programs with the real world of work. While it isn’t a good idea to completely eliminate Philosophy, English, Theatre or Baseball from a college’s curriculum, as they are essential for some students to become “well rounded,” the prospective Philosophy major student should ponder future income potential unless he/she actually is planning to live a monastic, austere and reclusive life after graduation.

Since I have my Master’s degree in English, I would not seem a likely person to discourage students from non-income generating degrees in liberal arts or social work or drama. Also, since a theatre major college buddy of mine just won a Tony Award, there are some who enter into these fields of study with their eyes wide open and focused on the post-graduation prize. Indeed, when I started college the business world was still hiring English majors because they made “well-rounded” executives. When I finished college nearly a decade later, a graduate needed an MBA to even land an interview for any corporate position outside of copywriter. The times change but the degrees which institutions offer often fail to keep pace.

Increasingly, degrees which have some element of specialization in line with the world of work are proving to be of more value to the working graduate than do traditional brick-and-mortar degrees. While it's possible to see a philosophy or English major excel in the corporate world, it is more likely you'll see MBAs filling the ranks of the upper echelon of corporate America. The graduate with a degree in engineering, technology or finance likely has a larger set of skills and experience required by the business world than his/her general studies or traditional discipline contemporaries. The empirical evidence of this is on the front page of many notable journals. The fact is that the largest sector of employment opportunities -- the middle skills positions -- requires graduates who have certifications and skills that often take less than a traditional four-year degree.

The advantage for-profits enjoy is that they’re new on the scene and their degrees stem from the real world of work. Traditional colleges struggle to stand up a program in renewable energy, for instance, but a for-profit college can just hire that BP or GE mid-level manager as an adjunct faculty member and set them to work building the curriculum for a program. This business to academia approach generates graduates which are arguably better equipped, trained and hirable upon completion of their degree than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. The academia-to-business approach assumes that academia fully understands the needs of business, yet this understanding demands surveys of business and graduates, market research, relies on a feedback loop from alumnus years removed from their alma mater and requires any actionable data which could lead to program enhancements to be force fed to a system reluctant and suspicious of change, bureaucratic and quite inflexible. Needless to say, the mechanics of that feedback to actual change loop can hardly keep pace with the world today, yet it remains the model for many traditional colleges.

Let me get that for you.

In addition to flexible schedules, prior learning assessment and better focused degrees, for-profit and online institutions have made the entire process of enrolling and taking classes easier. If a student wants to start college this month he/she could do so at a for-profit, online institution with a degree plan in hand and financial aid already lined up. If the student tries to do that at a traditional brick-and-mortar college, it often involves a lengthy application process, waiting for acceptance, waiting for an appointment to enroll, meeting with an academic advisor to enroll and bouncing back and forth between multiple offices (admissions, counseling, financial aid, bookstore, etc. ). At the for-profit, online college, a student typically only needs to complete a query form. From there an admissions advisor will assist the student through the entire process, including a degree plan, textbooks shipments, financial aid arrangements and enrollment in the first classes. The entire process is as easy as Christmas shopping online, instead of fighting the crowds at the mall. The process also accommodates the “on-demand” lifestyle of people today.

For-profit, online institutions leverage technology to automate processes throughout the entire lifecycle of the student. Additionally, they’re resource nimble, so they can fund processes and architecture which serves the business model even if that means eliminating positions within the system due to automation. If you’ve ever tried to set up an online program or automated billing or enrollment system at a State institution which didn’t have one, you know exactly what I’m saying here. First, you have to get enough buy-in to even have it considered. Then, funding to buy servers and software has to come from somewhere, and that means some other well established program is going to have to take a cut. Training faculty, even early and enthusiastic adopters, takes time and even more resources. Not only is the entire process difficult to initially acquire and sustain funding but it is a continual outright war to educate the minds and win the hearts and allegiance of faculty, staff and board of directors. In the online, for-profit world, however, resources are allocated according to where they are needed to create the most efficient business model.

So, while legislators, the Department of Education, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Defense and the Executive branch all pass policies and regulations to rein in the nefarious practices of a few for-profit institutions, let us not lose sight of some of the things these institutions are practicing which are transformative enough to reform traditional education in a positive way. Not all for-profit and online institutions are bad. In fact, there are a number of white hats out there. Minimally, we should examine the many things these institutions are doing right to emulate those practices at our own institutions of higher learning. While some of the for-profit, online recruitment practices, graduation rates and retention rates leave little to defend, structurally they offer examples of best practices regarding accommodating flexible schedules, accepting prior learning assessment, focusing degrees to the real world, automating processes for students and faculty and remaining nimble and open to change in a rapidly moving world. Traditional colleges should look to their for-profit cousins for ways to remain young and viable in today’s world before their slow to change current practices relegate them to the quaint pages of history.

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About the author: Shawn Mann is the Director of Military Education Programs for Baker College, a not-for-profit, private college founded in 1911.

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