Thursday, May 13, 2010

College, Inc.

Colleagues Shannon Gibney and Lois Bollman directed me to this fascinating Frontline episode titled "College, Inc."    Other blogs have addressed "College, Inc." - check out, for instance, the 10 May Brainstorm posting from the Chronicle of Higher Education.  That won't keep me, however, from adding my thoughts to the conversation.  The documentary does have a bias (don't all documentaries have a bias?), which becomes clear only minutes into the 55-minute program.  That said, it is pretty engaging, and it got me thinking.  Here are some of the nuggets:

  • John Sperling, a graduate of Cambridge, left traditional academe, moved to Phoenix, developed the University of Phoenix, and is now a billionaire.  Some of the key differences between UoP and traditional colleges and universities include non-tenured faculty (instead, faculty work on short-term contracts; they are essentially independent contractors), courses and programs are developed in a matter of days rather than months or years, and funding comes from a combination of investors (UoP went public as the Apollo Group, Inc.) and Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) dollars.  In other words, while a for-profit endeavor, UoP draws significantly from taxpayer-funded federal dollars.
  • According to Martin Smith, the "College, Inc." correspondent, for-profit colleges typically cost 5-6X more than public community colleges and 2-4X more than public four-year institutions.
  • According to Mark DeFusco, a former UoP director, UoP budgets 25% of its profits for marketing, while faculty are paid somewhere between 10% and 20% of the budget. 
  • Although for-profits account for 10% of all higher education students, for-profit students account for 25% of all FAFSA dollars. 
  • An astonishing figure - one that I need to research - is $750 Billion in outstanding student debt.  Someone in the documentary commented that this debt has the potential to undermine the economy in ways comparable to the sub-prime lending fiasco that we are still experiencing.
There are many interesting characters portrayed in the documentary including Michael Clifford, the former rock-and-roller/drug addict turned born-again for-profit education entrepreneur, the aforementioned Mark DeFusco, and the nervous, defensive Harris Miller, one of the for-profits' chief lobbyists. The person who fascinates me is the documentary's voice of reason Barmak Nassirian, who is associate executive director for external relations and a lobbyist with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO).  He is a paid lobbyist like Harris Miller, but their personas and ethos are remarkably different.  Where Miller seems incredibly uncomfortable (like a sophist arguing what he knows is his weakest argument), Nassirian comes off as well-informed and direct.  I understand that documentaries create sympathetic and unsympathetic characters, and that Nassirian is clearly the sympathetic character that the producers want to present.  I get that.  That said, I found Nassirian's arguments compelling and in the end persuasive.  Miller, on the other hand, seems a bit slimy and unprepared.  (To be fair to him, a quick search of his name led me to some really interesting articles.  For instance, there's a respectful posting written by one of Miller's frequent opponents at the Center for Immigration Studies blog.) 

There's so much in this documentary to unpack, and an already-too-long blog posting is probably not the place to do this.  As a public community college instructor, I have watched as more and more for-profits have been enrolling students that in the past probably would have appeared in my classes.  I've had a number of former for-profit college students complain about their for-profit college experiences.  I have always been suspicious about education-as-business (we have a different bottom line than 3M or Microsoft or the pizza shop in my neighborhood).  None of those concerns disappeared while watching "College, Inc.," but none of them increased either.

Instead, I am left still thinking about a telling exchange four minutes into the show between Martin Smith and the education venture capitalist Michael Clifford.  Smith asks Clifford, who never attended college, if he has the "credibility, the bona fides" to transform higher education.  Clifford answers honestly: "No, I don't, but I'm doing it."

I hear Clifford's words, and I am left thinking, yes, he's doing it.  We who work in not-for-profit higher education can and should continue to critique the for-profit efforts, but it is incredibly important that we recognize that for-profit higher ed. efforts are happening, they are incredibly profitable, they have 10% of the higher ed. student population and that percentage will continue to grow, and - this is most important - they are changing the college landscape, primarily through their online education efforts.  We will never, ever go back to the face-to-face classroom in the same ways that we did before the online revolution, nor should we

How we respond to this changing landscape will determine whether or not not-for-profit higher education will be relevant in the years to come.

If you have 55 minutes to spare (and even if you don't), watch "College, Inc."  It is definitely worth your while.

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