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On Twitter this week, Laura McKenna asked one of my favorite questions. Looking at a local for-profit college, for which tuition is high and post-graduation starting salaries are low, she asks why a student would choose it over a community college.

Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote the definitive book on this, Lower Ed, but it’s worth revisiting from time to time. (If you get a chance, the documentary “Fail State” is also terrific on the subject.) From within the walls of a community college, if I wanted to compete with for-profits, what would I do?

Advertise. A lot. The students targeted by for-profits don’t always know about the traditional status hierarchies in higher education; sometimes they don’t even know that a given school is a for-profit.  Instead, they go by name recognition and location. And don’t focus on changing the minds of the influential; go after the folks who are desperate for a life change. In olden times, that meant certain tv shows; I’m not sure what it means now.

Increase dramatically the size of the admissions staff.  One of the best-kept secrets of for-profits is the concierge service that admissions reps provide.  They can, because for-profits staff so heavily in admissions.

Eliminate application fees. (Note: this one actually makes sense on its own terms.)  For someone who isn’t sure about how she’ll get through the week, a student loan of $10,000 is funny money, but a $25 application fee is real.  For-profits figured that out. They charge quite a bit for tuition, but I’ve never seen one charge an application fee. They make it remarkably easy to enroll. Compare that to the self-service ethos of admissions at many community colleges: first you create an account, then you fill out forms, then you pay a fee. Then you submit financial aid paperwork and wait a while for an answer. For-profits handle all of that for you, making it easy to say “yes.”

Keep the number of majors to a minimum. That keeps down the cost of advising, and makes the marketing simple.  When I was at DeVry, it had less than a half dozen majors.

Eliminate tenure and unions, obviously.  I’ve never heard of a for-profit with either, let alone both.  They create power centers separate from shareholders, which is to say, they threaten the business model.  Base faculty evaluations on pass rates.

Shift resources away from instruction, towards marketing and admissions.  You have to pay for those admissions reps somehow.


Over the past several years, we’ve seen contradictory trends.  On one side, for-profit colleges have had a tremendous slide. Many have folded or been taken over, and some of the survivors are much smaller than they used to be. 

On the other side, though, publics and some privates are acting much more like for-profits.  As public subsidies become ever-smaller parts of budgets, and enrollment becomes ever larger, the economic incentive to act like a for-profit gets stronger.  Some for-profits have even found ways to embed themselves in existing non-profits, like Purdue Global. For-profits have largely moved from an “imitation” model to an “infiltration” model.  The U of Phoenix may not be what it used to be, but many publics have taken pages from its playbook.

The latter trend is reversible, but only if we collectively choose to. 

To get back to the original question, for-profits make their presence obvious, and they make enrollment easy.  The rest of us often don’t. There’s plenty to disown in the for-profit model, but defeating it requires understanding it.  And there’s something to be said for eliminating application fees anyway


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