Disaggregating Higher Education

Partnerships seem to be the name of the game with many nonprofit institutions taking on for-profit partners.

March 16, 2014

Many universities seem to be moving in the direction of off-loading services. Partnerships seem to be the name of the game with many non-profit institutions taking on for-profit partners. Contracting private companies to take over campus services such as dining halls and bookstores is not a new phenomenon and one that has produced important budget efficiencies for many universities. The more recent trend is to student services. Many of these partnerships are geared towards internationalizing the campus.

For quite some time, universities have worked through third-party providers to offer opportunities for study abroad. These programs vary widely in quality as well as the extent to which these experiences are integrated with the student’s degree program.

There is also a growing trend to turn over international student recruitment to third parties. Previous blog posts on “The World View” have commented on the growing number of universities willing to pay commissions to recruitment agents overseas for referring candidates to their degree programs.

Increasingly, independent companies are assuming a larger chunk of the recruitment process by offering expanded services. Not only do they identify potential students, but these enterprises typically provide admissions advising, visa counseling, English-language instruction, and orientation and support services to international students. Global Pathways (a program of Kaplan International) offers international students a transition program that guarantees undergraduate or graduate admission at Merrimack College, Northeastern University, or Pace University to individuals who successfully complete their program. In his recent NY Times article Pérez-Peña describes a similar venture between Oregon State and Into-University Partnerships. Into will recruit students from abroad for OSU and then provide English language instruction and cultural counseling once students arrive on campus. Britain-based Study Group, another private entity mentioned in Pérez-Peña’s article, has partnered with 100 institutions in seven countries (for the most part, countries that pursue international students primarily as a source of income). Based on the information available on the Study Group website, it offers university partners soup-to-nuts services — they will recruit students, teach them English and transition them to academic programs. In their own words;

As well as programme development and student recruitment, Study Group can take care of all the other issues around successful international student tutoring. Our deep skills in student welfare management are second to none. We can also take care of back office administration, regulatory management and real estate selection and management too.

And Study Group is venturing into new partnerships to develop distance learning, offshore campuses, and more.

Who are the people behind these academic service companies?  Study Group was kind enough to include short bios of their leadership team. These talented individuals come to this venture with experience at private, for-profit companies including McKinsey, Google, General Electric, ABC Broadcasting, to name a few. Nary an educator among them. Well educated? Without a doubt. Educational background about student development? Higher education? Nope. Does it matter? I think so.

Certainly as colleges and universities struggle with diminishing state and federal support and growing antagonism to tuition increases, it isn’t hard to see how compelling it is to eliminate budget lines that represent expenditures while adding lines that represent revenue, especially sources of income that do not add “overhead” costs (since they are assumed by the off-campus partner). Pushing administrative operations off the books to a private company has to be very appealing. Farming out the cost of international student recruitment and associated services diminishes budget obligations while adding revenue. All the university administration has to do is sit back and deposit the tuition check.

From where I sit these “partnerships” are part of a larger trend to corporatize education by applying business principles to higher education management to achieve financial objectives, but what are the effects on educational objectives?  Certainly some business practices are useful to the extent that they encourage sound financial planning and oversight but education is not a business; it’s a messy enterprise. Often it is the messiness and inefficiency that gives higher education its greatest value—the endless hours spent building a relationship to mentor a single struggling student; time spent doing research that may or may not produce something significant.

Where is the line where financial objectives overshadow educational ones? Who will provide the vision, oversight, and coordination that will shape all of the elements of a college experience into a coherent whole? In the name of economic expediency, will we reduce the “business of education” to something that will make sense only on the balance sheet? I think we are drifting into an approach to financial management that has serious implications for higher education. Let’s not overlook the risks. 


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