I have spent most of my professional career studying the economics of nonprofit organizations. This is, of course, not the topic that comes to mind right away when one thinks of professional economists. Indeed, I am often approached at parties with questions about stock market investments, only to have to give an answer along the lines of “heck if I know…”
Instead, I study the workings of organizations whose main purpose is not just to earn money, but to do something else. Just what that “something else” is has not completely been determined, and so the “objective function” of the nonprofit organization remains a “holy grail” for my sub-sub field that many continue to search for. I must admit that I am among those searching for this elusive model.
I thought of this recently when I read an article in our local paper  about a recent Senate report on the sales tactics being used by for-profit colleges and universities.
As I read of some of their tactics, I became alarmed and disappointed. I strongly suggest that anyone in higher education read, if not the actual Senate report this article is based upon (which is linked to the on-line version of the article), at least the article itself, as it is a real eye opener.
I suspect that many professors in higher education entered our field out of a sense of mission and dedication. Many of us earn much less than we could earn in other sectors of the economy, and do so out of a sense of a calling to teach and to do research. That is why we grade exams on Saturday, stay late to tutor students, and spend our summer “vacations” delving into research and then writing that research into some form that might someday get published. Because of the dedication of many such professors, and the benefits they offer to their students, parents are willing to make sacrifices to be able to send their children to college, and adults who desire a college education are willing to juggle many responsibilities so they can attain the advantages that a college degree offers. Our hard work has, over the years, made the product “a college degree” something worth working for and worth making sacrifices to earn.
The economist in me leads me to believe that the for-profit sector of higher education is also able to offer a product comparable to that offered by the nonprofit sector, as if were not, that sector would not survive for long. I am, however, disturbed by the tactics mentioned in this article for recruiting students into some of these schools. This article speaks of sales tactics that might put even the most pushy salesperson to shame, and which don’t take the true needs of the students into consideration. This is especially shocking as I work for a college that is always careful to take the individual needs of each student into consideration. Indeed, Ursuline College prides itself on being “student centered.”
I hope this article and the report it is based on might lead to some discussion among faculty members who daily make sacrifices to live out our vocations as professors in sometimes very challenging times. We knew that sacrifices would be required when we entered this field, but as I think of the commoditization of higher education, I am reminded a response to an article  in Inside Higher Ed from last week about the “Disgruntled Associate Professor.” In response, one person posted “You got into this profession because money did not matter to you, but as you hit middle age it is hard to retain that idealism.”
What I do know is that when it is time for my daughter to choose a college, I will encourage her to choose a college that has nonprofit status.