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Over the last couple of decades, many of us in higher ed -- myself included -- have fallen into a bad habit. We referred to “for-profits” or “for-profit colleges” as if the category were simply profit-making analogues of traditional colleges.  

For a while, that didn’t matter much; the larger ones seemed to be shifting in the direction of tradition, and the smaller ones were too small to be of much concern. Some of the larger ones attained regional accreditation to offer degrees; others bought campuses that carried accreditations with them, like taxi medallions.  

Over the last few years, of course, the degree-granting versions of for-profits have fallen on hard times.  But that doesn’t mean the sector is going away; it just means that it’s moving to a new niche.

Welcome to five-figure short-term boot camps.  

The short-term boot camp model more closely resembles corporate training than traditional undergraduate education, which means that it can charge quite a bit without raising eyebrows. And it can dispense with general education, student life, and the traditional campus. If a given provider wants to, it can contract with an existing accredited college to get credits through some variation on prior learning assessment, as in this story about General Assembly and Lynn University. But if that’s more trouble than it’s worth, they can cater entirely to the graduate market.  By dodging accreditation, they can cherry-pick their students and their markets.  

I’ve suggested for years that for-profits would be better off competing on the high end of the market than the low end. On the low end, they’re competing with community and state colleges, which have the considerable advantages of being subsidized and untaxed. But I have to admit falling prey to the trap of thinking mostly in terms of degrees, which left open the objection that the upscale degree market is largely defined by historical wealth, which is pronounced “prestige.” The boot camp model plays a different game. It leaves general education and difficult students to the publics, and instead selects the graduates most likely to succeed. It charges more, and offers a more customized product. It’s FedEx, as opposed to first-class mail. And it can specialize in whatever skill is hot at the moment, effectively ceding prestige in favor of good timing.

The new for-profit model raises different questions. The old one raised questions of the maintenance of academic standards, given the pressure to produce graduates no matter what. The new one raises questions of access, given the high sticker price and (usually) the lack of financial aid. Boutique stores don’t compete on access; if anything, they strive to convey a sense of exclusivity, whether warranted or not. If that means that only the usually-advantaged can gain the latest skills, well, so be it. They’re not running charities.

Honestly, I see this version as having legs that the previous version didn’t have.  In this version, they don’t have to try to compete with community colleges on price or access, or with elite universities on prestige.  Instead, they can sell speed and employer relevance. There’s a market for that.

To the extent that the rest of us care about both employer relevance and access, we should watch the boot camps closely and take good notes. Highly employable short term programs at community colleges -- whether in IT or something else -- offer a similar good at a much lower price. And it can do so in an institutional setting in which folks who need support can get it.  If the for-profits are willing to establish the public awareness of this niche that we can subsequently fill, I say, go for it. And in the meantime, the rest of us should probably rethink what we mean when we refer to for-profits.  



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