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Doonesbury on For-Profit Higher Ed
August 12, 2012 - 9:00pm

It is not possible to overstate the degree to which Doonesbury defines the cultural milieux from which so many of us in higher education and associated knowledge industries are drawn from. How many of you have Doonesbury cartoons taped up to your office door? Raise your hand if Doonesbury is the first thing you look for in your morning paper. The only comic strip that you have continued to read as your life and career have progressed.

If you are a certain age (I don't know - 25 to 90), and of a certain ideological persuasion (say left wing to moderately conservative) then you probably identify (or at one point have identified) with Doonesbury.

So it is my (almost) lifelong love of Doonesbury, and the unparalleled respect (even reverence) I feel for Gary Trudeau, that compels me to (gently, humbly) take the strip and its creator on in this space.

To start, absolutely nobody gets higher ed as well as Doonesbury. Who has not seen some of our own institutions in Walden College, or reflections of our own leadership in President King? Through Walden, Trudeau holds up a delicious mirror to us higher ed folks - one that is more sharp, critical and timely than a thousand editorial (or blog posts) could ever be.

Doonesbury's skewering of the for-profit sector has been as timely and funny as any work that Trudeau has done. If you haven't caught up with Doonesbury on for-profit higher ed go and check out the strip the week of 8/6/12:

Some choice dialogue between President King and his Dean on 8/7/12:

President King:  "So we have a graduation rate as bad as for-profit colleges?"

Dean: "Well, maybe not quite that bad".

Dean: "Remember, for-profits take any warm body with Federal aid. They're all about enrollment, not completion."

Dean:  "Why not? Last year, tax payers sent the failure factories $32 billion!"

President King: "What are you saying?  We should turn pro?"

Dean: "Aren't you tired of the rankings?"

Funny, no doubt. And Trudeau's satire, as always, cuts to the center of our debates about the changing nature of higher ed and the role that for-profits are playing.

The issue I have with how Doonesbury is depicting for-profit education is that the strip is playing into a lazy consensus that all for-profits are created equal, and that for-profit education does not have the potential to be part of the solution to many of the higher challenges that we face.

It may be true that some portion of for-profit higher ed providers may be "failure factories," only concerned with "enrollment, not completion". 

This description, however, does not match the reality of what I have observed from the leadership, faculty, or students of for-profits that I have interacted.  

Quite the contrary, in my experience the people who choose to work in for-profit education are doing so because they are committed educators. 

They believe that they are contributing to the improvement of the lives of individuals and their families by making quality higher education available to those that our traditional public and non-profit sector has shut out through the lack of available slots or an absence of online learning options that make balancing work, family, and school possible.

Nobody that I know in for-profit higher education is happy with dropout or non-completion rates, and they are working as hard as they can to innovate on the educational delivery and student support models that will improve these rates. (To be fair, I should note that those I've worked with tend to be at "high end" institutions, with respected accreditors and long track records, quite different from the institutions that turn up in Congressional investigations.)

Beyond the fact that the business model of for-profits depends on students remaining enrolled (tuition dollars are not paid by non-attendees), these for-profit educators feel a strong responsibility to the learners themselves (often people who have faced multiple obstacles in their quest to improve their opportunities through higher education).

There is a fair critique to be made about how we finance higher education (both for-profit and non-profit), and and for-profit "failure factories" deserve to exposed and closed down.   

The for-profit education world has an enormous amount of work to do to better share their values, make their finances and metrics more transparent, and to engage the entire education community about they're plans to improve.  

For-profit higher ed must increasingly adopt the cultural norms of the non-profit higher ed world, (including a willingness to be self-critical and transparent, as well a system that protects unpopular voices and a diversity of opinion), if the industry is going to receive the public support (that non-profits depend on to such a degree) to thrive.  

The challenge for for-profits will be adopting and values of non-profit education (including faculty autonomy (if not governance) and a belief that the creation and discussion of unpopular ideas is critical for authentic learning communities), with the requirement to develop student-centric organizations and cost-effective modes of operation.  

I only hope that we work to look beyond the headlines (and the comic strips) to understand the diversity and nuance in the for-profit education sector, and to find opportunities for genuine dialogue across our education industry (no matter what tax status we happen to hold).

We will know that progress has occurred when we visit our faculty and leadership colleagues in the for-profit sector, and they have taped up on their office doors the Doonesbury strips of President King thinking about bringing Walden College "pro."

Until then, I hope that Doonesbury sparks some good conversation within our community.


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