PHOENIX -- To many officials at public and independent nonprofit colleges, for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix and DeVry University seem like brash aggressors with the self-assurance of wheeler dealers. The odd truth of it is that some of the most prominent leaders of the for-profit sector are almost insecure, and surprisingly eager -- almost desperate -- to alter their "outsider" status in the broad universe of higher education.
That reality was abundantly clear at an unusual gathering here late last week convened by the University of Phoenix, the University of Southern California and the Lumina Foundation for Education. The nominal purpose of the meeting was to start framing an agenda for a new research center that Phoenix is creating, and they invited an intriguing mix of for-profit leaders, higher education researchers, foundation officials and others to suggest (and throw darts at) ideas for the sort of work the center might do.
They made some significant headway toward that goal, reaching general agreement that the center should focus on comparative studies designed to show how the institutions fare in educating students, and that to be credible, the work supported by the institute must be as independent as possible from the for-profit sector itself.
“Without credible data done by independent researchers, there is an existential threat to the operation of the sector,” said Harris Miller, president of the Career College Association, the sector’s main advocacy group.
But the consensus building effort was also hamstrung, in many ways, by intense debate about whether the center should have a largely self-interested goal -- trying to show that for-profit colleges are more effective at educating students than are other institutions -- or a broader social purpose, focused, for example, on identifying practices that are particularly effective for educating underprepared students, or finding ways to improve classroom efficiency without hurting academic performance.
And the participants were repeatedly tripped up by concerns about language, reflecting the reality that the sector is viewed with mistrust by many people in traditional higher education and in public policy. That tension was reflected most of all in debate over the very name of the center, which began the session as the “National Research Center for Market-Based Higher Education” (the colleges’ attempt to displace the popular term “for-profit”) but was, amid a lack of agreement, up in the air when the two-day meeting ended.
Skepticism Amid Sharp Growth
Jorge Klor de Alva, senior vice president for academic excellence at the University of Phoenix and executive director of the planned research center, welcomed participants to the meeting with what he characterized as a simple “framing question” for the fledgling center’s work: "Market-based colleges and universities: providing access or exploiting students?"
That is in many ways the fundamental question that surrounds the for-profit sector of higher education as its share of the student population (particularly among low-income students ) has grown. The most recent federal data,  from 2007, showed about 8 percent of all postsecondary students enrolled in for-profit colleges (a figure that is likely to be higher by now).
Advocates for the institutions say those numbers show that consumers are choosing to attend colleges that have proven their success in educating students. But the colleges continue to be dogged by the suggestion that they are recruiting academically underprepared students, encouraging them to take on heavy debt, and too often failing to deliver on promises of jobs. Tomorrow, for instance, Miller of the career college group will be among the witnesses at a House of Representatives hearing  examining the colleges' practices in enrolling students, which came under scrutiny in a Government Accountability Office report  last month. And the meeting here came in the shadow of an announcement  by the Apollo Group, parent of the University of Phoenix, that the institution is preparing to settle a federal lawsuit alleging that it illegally paid incentives to student recruiters.
It is largely with that skepticism in mind that the University of Phoenix -- which has undertaken an aggressive campaign in recent years to gain as much acceptance among traditional college leaders and the public as it has among would-be students -- has considered taking advantage of its massive database of student academic and demographic information to stimulate research.
As recently as last summer, Phoenix officials were contemplating inviting selected researchers to tap into the company’s 15 terabytes of data on students’ academic outcomes to do their own studies. But since then, Klor de Alva said he had become convinced of the need for a fully independent research center/think tank designed to produce data, across institutions, that informs policies on higher education and work force training. (The new research center has been launched with an in-kind contribution of office space and funding from the Apollo Group and a foundation established by Phoenix’s founder, John G. Sperling, but Klor de Alva is in the process of spinning it off into an independent nonprofit group, he said.)
“Unfortunately, [there] are virtually non-existent, especially data-driven, empirical studies that compare traditional and market-based institutions in areas such as learning outcomes, cost to the taxpayer, student debt burdens, and return on investment as measured by the relative worth of degrees to individuals in terms of opportunity costs, employability, or job/career advancement,” Klor de Alva wrote in a memo framing the agenda for last week’s event, which was co-sponsored by USC’s Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis and Lumina.
Participants in the meeting included a group of true believers in the for-profit sector – in addition to a large contingent from Phoenix (including John Sperling, the university’s founder), people such as Daniel Hamburger, the chief executive officer of DeVry, Inc., Michael Offerman, vice chairman of Capella Education Company, Miller of the Career College Association, and Michale McComis, executive director of the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology, which accredits many for-profit institutions.
But there was also a cohort of “agnostics,” as Josh Jarrett of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation described himself -- those who recognize the significant and growing role that for-profit institutions play in higher education today but are uncertain whether that growth (1) has been good for students and the country and (2) should be encouraged further through federal, state or other policies.
Jarrett, a senior program officer who plays a key role in Gates’s new “postsecondary success” effort, and a counterpart at Lumina, Suzanne Walsh, were invited, technically, to talk about the kind of research they would like to see in order to help their organizations -- the two 800-pound gorillas in higher education philanthropy -- decide how to use their dollars most effectively.
But given how much money Gates and Lumina pour into higher education research (the latter helped sponsor the Phoenix event), the sponsors almost certainly hoped to persuade the foundation officials about the potential quality and significance of the work they hope to do. “I don’t fool myself about why Suzanne and I have been invited,” Jarrett said to chuckles at one point in the discussion.
The other major players at the meeting here were a group of scholars and policy analysts who are just the type of well-respected researchers that the nascent research center would like to persuade to do studies on the for-profit sector. In addition to William G. Tierney and Guilbert Hentschke from USC, authors of a 2007 book  about for-profit higher education, they included academic researchers like Susan Dynarski of the University of Michigan and Judith Scott-Clayton of Columbia University’s Teachers College, independent analysts like Mark Kantrowitz of Finaid.org  (Georgetown University’s Anthony P. Carnevale was invited but sidelined by the flu), and think tank experts like Patrick Callan of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, Mark Schneider of the American Institutes for Research, and Louis Soares  of the Center for American Progress’s Economic Mobility Program.
The scholars offered a wide range of ideas about the types of studies the new research center might seek to do and under what sorts of arrangements.
Some urged work that dug into the rich databases at Phoenix and others to inform discussions about what works in higher education; Tierney of USC, for instance, noted that his own center and the new center have a proposal in to the Education Department to fund a study of the relative outcomes for students in Phoenix’s online vs. classroom programs. Tierney also suggested that the center work with a higher education research group (like the Association for the Study of Higher Education or the Association for Institutional Research) to sponsor fellowships, early career faculty awards, or endowed chairs for scholars who study topics related to for-profit higher education.
Dynarski, of Michigan, said she believed that for-profit institutions have an opportunity to become leaders in higher education research, which lags badly behind elementary and secondary education, she said, in studying student outcomes. “These institutions are potentially labs for innovation, because there’s experimentation going on” in terms of learning techniques and student support services, but “the studies that would let us glean insights into that isn’t happening,” Dynarski said.
Given the types of students that for-profit colleges enroll -- predominantly low-income, minority, and first generation in their families to go to college -- studies of their students could be extremely useful to other institutions, like urban public universities, some small independent colleges, and two-year institutions, that serve such students, participants in the meeting said. "Lessons you glean from your own operations could be extended to community colleges, and vice versa," said Dynarski.
She pointed to a well-publicized piece of recent higher ed research as a potential example: Crossing the Finish Line, in which several prominent researchers  used a longitudinal database of students from public flagship universities to examine how different types of students fared at different institutions. “Some of your larger institutions could follow a similar model, following students over their lifetimes,” she said. “Traditional institutions are not good at figuring out who’s going to make it through college and who’s not…. You can set the gold standard.”
"We can do this," said Hamburger, the DeVry CEO. "This would represent a new level of cooperation among our institutions -- a new day."
A few of the participants said they believed that Phoenix and other for-profit colleges should make their data on such things as student learning outcomes available so that the information could be compared to -- even meshed with -- data for public two-year and four-year institutions that appear in state unit records databases or the National Student Clearinghouse. If those data were then linked to state employment records, this could allow researchers to compare how graduates (and non-graduates) of for-profit and community colleges, for instance, fare in the workforce.
“It would be really useful if [state record systems like those in Florida and Ohio] could be augmented” with data from the for-profit sector, said Scott-Clayton, assistant professor of economics and education  at Teachers College. “If we could match them with earnings data and other measures from the labor market, we could start to answer some key questions about what students are getting from different types of schools.”
If they favored differing approaches to the kinds of studies that might be done, the researchers were unanimous, not surprisingly, that the work had to be fully independent to be credible. "Make your raw data available" and let any researcher who wants have at it, urged Kantrowitz, of Finaid.org. "You'd probably have many analyses that you didn't anticipate," and some of them might not be so favorable, he said. "It could lead to interesting results, but they'll be credible results."
Jarrett of the Gates foundation (who made clear he was speaking for himself and not officially for his employer) encouraged the research center to invite onto its advisory board "some of the most outspoken critics of this sector who are data-driven, not ideologically driven," and suggested that the organization accept no money from for-profit colleges themselves. Jarrett also recommended that the research center and for-profit colleges focus less on directly proving their own value than on producing research that helps higher education get better.
"You'd really be starting to achieve your broader goal of legitimacy and respectability if people who care about these issues start saying, 'We're beginning to learn about what works for low-income students [educationally], and a lot of the research on that topic just so happens to come from the for-profit sector,' " Jarrett said.
Many of the participants in last week's meeting were sympathetic to the idea that they focus on research that contributes to higher education (Klor de Alva went so far as to muse about Phoenix and other for-profit colleges appropriating the informal motto of his former employer, Princeton University: "in the nation's service").
But the reality is that for many officials in the for-profit sector, the primary motivation for examining their own performance -- and especially for potentially opening themselves up to examination by outside researchers -- would be to help them persuade would-be students, politicians and regulators, and their many detractors in traditional higher education that they're doing good work.
Hamburger, of DeVry, said he believed the term "for-profit" was a big part of the sector's problem -- used pejoratively to demean the colleges' motives, he said, even though "all institutions" are technically "for profit," since they all aim to have revenues exceed their costs. He favors replacing the term "for-profit" with "market-funded," compared, Hamburger said, to "government-funded" public colleges and "charitably funded" independent nonprofit colleges. (Yes, there is plenty of government money coursing through for-profit institutions, too, in the form of Pell Grant and student loan funds,  officials at the institutions concede.) Elsewhere in the discussion, some participants suggested that the sector seek to snare the term "private" or (private sector) to define their institutions, since the nonprofit institutions that many now call "private" (the wide range that includes Harvard University, tiny liberal arts colleges, and many seminaries) prefer to call themselves "independent."
Soares, of the Center for American Progress, acknowledged that the institutions face an especially uphill climb in a national (and international) political environment in which governments are "looking at markets in a certain" -- and largely negative -- "way right now." Democrats in Washington, Soares said, "have inherited a mess that they attribute to free markets, and that's the space you're talking into. The question for you is how do market-based institutions fit into the role we see higher education needing to fill in society, and how do you talk about that," Soares said, given current biases against private enterprise.
Language certainly matters, and for-profit colleges should do all they can to be good citizens in higher education, including producing research that helps all colleges, said Miller, president of the career college group. But in the final analysis, he said, only one thing is going to persuade for-profit colleges' many audiences of their value: fact-based evidence that they are educating rather than exploiting.
“The overriding suggestion is that we’re overselling or underdelivering,” Miller said. “The only way we can ultimately combat that is with high quality, independent research on outcomes. As long as there are doubts about the outcomes of our students, we can call the institutions whatever we want. The big questions are, are they getting good jobs and are they able to repay their student loans?”