forprofit

Essay on significance of last week's proposal for higher ed outsourcing in California

How do you build the Harvard University of the for-profit college sector?

That’s perhaps a silly question at face value but the question reveals the challenge of manufacturing prestige and legitimacy in a higher education system that is fundamentally ordered by the former and fueled by the latter, frequently in the form of accreditation. When a college prints a degree, the credential’s minimum value is rooted in the social perception of the institution as legitimate.

That legitimacy is different for different kinds of colleges. That difference produces a prestige hierarchy. That is clearly reflected in my interviews with for-profit and nonprofit colleges. Both groups talk of for-profit colleges existing in opposition to "real" college. The for-profit college sector is acutely aware of that general perception. In their quest to defend their legitimate right to produce college degrees, the for-profit college sector’s primary challenge has been gaining the prestige that traditional colleges take for granted. When lacking the prestige of elite colleges, the for-profit sector could point to legitimacy when accredited by recognized agencies – in many cases the same accreditors that review nonprofit colleges and universities.

Despite the sector’s phenomenal growth and financial prowess it has, to date, been unable to crack the perception that for-profit college credentials are inferior to "real"  college degrees. It would seem that they could build it, the people could come, and they could even bring their federal aid, but they could not make for-profit education prestigious.

A California bill proposed last week  could end up giving for-profit institutions that have never sought or won accreditation a new kind of legitimacy. The legislation also raises the question over whether accreditation still provides legitimacy, given the ease with which legislators want to gut accreditation. The California State Senate pro tem, Darrell Steinberg, is sponsoring a bill that establishes a pool of for-credit online courses for students at the state's public colleges and universities. Ostensibly, the bill promises a solution to overcrowded classes or campuses at capacity that derail on-time degree completion when students cannot enroll in required courses. Detractors argue that this would further erode the quality of education, while supporters say it would cut student debt loads and frustration. My experience with the for-profit college sector suggests that beyond helping students, the sector sees an opportunity to finally break the “credit hour cartel” that has painted the sector as inferior.

When I partnered with my colleague Sandy Darity to convene a research conference on the for-profit college sector at Duke University last fall, I was adamant that for-profit college leaders be included. Executives from four of the nation’s largest for-profit colleges took me up on my invitation. Not long after the opening plenary, the conversation inevitable turned to accreditation woes. The debate was energetic but not at all combative. The executives in the room seemed to accept that their relationship with accreditation bodies would be challenging but not insurmountable.

The next day, the conversation turned to the issue of transfer credit hours and I was surprised at how much more contentious that discussion was than the one about accreditation. That little disclaimer at the end of many  for-profit college ads that says something along the lines of "credits earned here are unlikely to transfer” was the real thorn in the industry’s side. Symbolically, the disclaimer marks the sector as different than and inferior to "real" college. Materially, the for-profit college leaders thinks that the transfer credit autonomy of the traditional college sector is effectively a prestige cartel, used to marginalize the sector and the students it serves.

Whether you think university autonomy over transfer credit hours is a means of marginalization or quality control, it remains that it is a mechanism that preserves the prestige and legitimacy of traditional colleges and universities. When a college insists on its right to review – and in some cases to reject – credit from another institution, it protects what a credential from its institution means. There is much to be said about the extent to which college credentials signal competency versus "butt in seat," but it is difficult to deny that a college credential is a powerful symbol. And the power of that symbol is different for different institutions along the prestige hierarchy.

The California proposal to mandate the transferability of coursework from not-for-profit and for-profit providers in the approved pool, without a review from the institution receiving the credit, would be nothing short of a fundamental re-ordering of the hierarchy of public higher education. It is unlikely that such legislation could be applied to private colleges and universities. Elite private universities will be able to continue to set their own credit criteria and review processes. Public colleges would, however, effectively lose control over the credentials they produce.

The for-profit college sector had a difficult time building a prestigious for-profit product – at least in the way that the elite private universities are prestigious. But perhaps the lines between for-profit and public higher education is about to disappear. The latest ads from the University of Phoenix do not sound markedly different than the public relations of the University of California at Berkeley. There’s a somber assessment of the competitiveness of the marketplace, a nod to the importance of market-relevant training, and a promise to provide opportunity for willing and able students, irrespective of background or academic preparation. It is a public good message. Heretofore, the University of Phoenix could mimic the crème-de-la-crème of public higher education, but it could not promise a degree of equal legitimacy.

Under the proposed California bill, it wouldn’t have to. The for-profit college sector may have figured out a way to buy its way into the backdoor of the most credible and prestigious public universities the country has ever known. It doesn’t need to build it if it can transfer you into it.
 

Tressie McMillan Cottom formerly worked in the for-profit college sector and is now a Ph.D. student in sociology at Emory University. Her research focuses on for-profit higher education. She can be found at www.tressiemc.com and on twitter, @tressiemcphd

Section: 
Editorial Tags: 

U. of the Rockies Transfers Personnel

The University of the Rockies has transferred a "substantial presence" of its personnel and operations to the domain of its regional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges, according to a corporate filing from Bridgepoint Education Inc., which owns the university. The university is based in Colorado Springs, which is in the commission's territory, but Bridgepoint's corporate headquarters is in San Diego, which is not. The for-profit institution made the move to meet the commission's presence requirements, which have also been an issue for Bridgepoint's Ashford University.

Ad keywords: 

Accreditor Puts Ashford on Notice

Bridgepoint Education Inc. announced Thursday that its Ashford University has been placed "on notice" by the for-profit college's regional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. The sanction, which is less serious than probation, is based on the commission's concerns about Ashford's inability to meet new standards for accreditation, which the commission put into effect in January, as well as Ashford's current noncompliance with the accreditor's "substantial presence policy" (which requires institutions to have a meaningful physical presence in the agency's geographic region), according to a Bridgepoint corporate filing. Ashford last year had its bid rejected for accreditation with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. And the commission's sanction follows a site team's recommendation last week that the University of Phoenix be put on probation.

Ad keywords: 

For-Profit Group's Report on Veteran Education

A task force convened by the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, which is the primary trade group of the for-profit sector, today issued a report on how colleges can better serve students who are veterans or active-duty members of the U.S. military. The recommended "best practices" touch on career services, pedagogy and student recruitment. Steve Gunderson, the association's president, said the report should be useful to all of higher education. The association plans to release three other reports on quality standards in coming months, he said.

Ad keywords: 

British Nonprofit College Buys American For-Profit

Regent's College, a nonprofit British institution, has purchased for-profit American Intercontinental University London from the latter's owner, Career Education Corporation, Times Higher Education reported. The purchase is the first of its kind in Britain. Regent's will run American Intercontinental as a for-profit subsidiary initially but plans to subsume it within Regent's within a year.

 

International students complain about the quality of education at an unaccredited California institution

Smart Title: 

An unaccredited California institution lacks approval by the state to operate, but is allowed to enroll international students -- some of whom say the education is seriously substandard.

 

Foxx criticizes private college leaders for not defending for-profit colleges

Smart Title: 

Representative Virginia Foxx uses allusion to the Holocaust to criticize private college presidents for not defending for-profit institutions against regulations.

Judge Dismisses EEOC Suit Against Kaplan

A federal judge this week dismissed a lawsuit charging that Kaplan Higher Education discriminated against black job applicants by rejecting some people seeking employment because of their credit histories, The New York Times reported. The suit, brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said that relying on credit histories has a disproportionate impact on black applicants. The suit was dismissed after the judge agreed to block testimony from an expert witness for the EEOC, finding that the way that witness identified which job applicants were black was not reliable.

 

Ad keywords: 

ITT Tech Expands Scholarships

ITT Technical Institute is the latest for-profit higher education provider to go big with scholarships. The institute's holding company announced in an earnings call on Thursday that it hopes to expand a pilot program to all of its campuses by the end of the year. Company officials said early returns showed that discounting tuition has had a positive impact on student enrollment. The scholarship reduces net tuition to $28,000 from $44,000, according to a written statement from Trace Urdan, an analyst with Wells Fargo Securities.

Ad keywords: 

World Bank affiliate invests $150 million in for-profit college provider

Smart Title: 

The International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group, invests $150 million in Laureate Education, a for-profit higher ed provider.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - forprofit
Back to Top