INDIANAPOLIS -- As much as they have been a favorite subject for (and in some cases target of) politicians and policy makers for the last two years, for-profit colleges have been comparatively little studied by researchers in higher education, and little discussed at the yearly gathering of such scholars. This year's meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education here is no exception; despite the political maelstrom enveloping the sector in Washington, not even a handful of the scores of sessions (several of which are discussed later in this article) touch on the career-focused, commercial colleges that now enroll more than 10 percent of all students in higher education.
There are numerous reasons why. Lack of interest, and in some cases snobbery, on the part of researchers at traditional institutions (or, in the case of the many graduate students who present here, perhaps dissertation advisers who discourage them). Lack of motivation, if not outright unwillingness, on the part of for-profit colleges themselves to open themselves to study, because they "weren't interested in giving out their proprietary information," said Jorge Klor de Alva, former president of the University of Phoenix and now president of the NEXUS Research & Policy Center, which Phoenix's parent company has created to stimulate research on for-profit higher education.
The relative invisibility exists even though both supporters and critics of the sector tend to agree that the lack of independent and high-quality data about the colleges -- and especially how they perform compared to other institutions -- is essential to inform the political and policy debate.
At the one highly visible session on for-profit higher education at this week's ASHE meeting, which drew a sizable throng of interested observers, two University of Southern California researchers who are working with Klor de Alva and one higher ed scholar who has sometimes been critical of for-profit colleges, Donald E. Heller of Pennsylvania State University, discussed the impediments to better research being done on the institutions, and also waded, gently, into some of the policy debates that have been raging in the nation's capital.
Most of the conversation would have been familiar to people who have been following those discussions: widespread agreement among the researchers about the inadequacy of existing sources of data, and general agreement that for-profit colleges aren't the only ones that loathe relinquishing data about their performance ("If we were to rank who hoards information more, I'd begin with independent colleges, then for-profits, then publics -- but only because they're forced to" release it, Klor de Alva said). He said that the "reputational attacks that have taken place" against for-profit colleges had prompted a "significant change in attitude" that made them more willing than before to "engage researchers" eager to examine them.
Discussion of one of those "reputational attacks" -- the Government Accountability Office's examination of enrollment practices  at for-profit colleges, which Senator Tom Harkin showcased  in one of the series of hearings he held on the institutions this fall -- produced the one bit of real news out of the ASHE session.
Klor de Alva told the audience that for-profit college leaders had filed a federal Freedom of Information Act request asking the GAO for what administrators believe is 40 hours of videotape that the agency shot during its investigation -- footage that was boiled down to just a few minutes, and that he suggested was unrepresentative of all that the agency uncovered. (Heller, who was a last-minute stand-in for an Education Department official, David Bergeron, who was billed to participate in the ASHE session, noted that the GAO study had found at least some level of "questionable statements," and in some cases outright improprieties, at all 15 sites visited.)
The agency has to this date rebuffed the request for the additional footage, Klor de Alva said.
Meeting the NCAA's New Chief
College athletics is not nearly as unexplored a topic at meetings of higher ed researchers as for-profit colleges are, as a hardy and small (but growing) number of scholars have focused their attention on an aspect of higher education that plays an outsized role in its public perception compared to its place on most campuses, in terms of students and budgets.
Those researchers and others heard Thursday from a new, high-profile player at the intersection of college sports and the academic world they inhabit: Mark Emmert, the new president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which is based here, too. Emmert, the former University of Washington president who is seven weeks into his new job, clearly knew his audience (and how to speak their language). His answers to questions posed by Robert Kustra, the Boise State University president and public radio host , played like short history lessons, on such topics as the odd, uniquely American pairing of big-time sports with higher education, and the creation of the NCAA a century ago as a way to protect students by ending a spate of football-related deaths.
And he managed to work in on several occasions his background as a social scientist, describing himself as a "bit of a data geek" and encouraging the researchers to e-mail him with studies they've done that they believe should influence NCAA policies or decisions. When asked what kind of research he thought the scholars should be doing, Emmert encouraged them to dig into two fairly predictable areas -- the effects of the NCAA's academic reforms and the economics of college sports -- but also said he'd like to see work done on whether college athletes are more likely to engage in sexual and relationship violence, as some have asserted. "This is an important area, and we just don't have good data," he said.
In the discussion with Kustra and an interview with Inside Higher Ed earlier Thursday, Emmert said that the NCAA was undertaking a thorough review of the academic reforms  implemented under his predecessor, the late Myles Brand. Emmert noted that the first cohort of athletes has now gone through the full six-year cycle after entering under the new academic standards instituted in 2003, which made it a logical time to figure out what has worked and what might warrant changing.
Emmert made clear he believed the reforms have been a major success, driving graduation rates up but, almost more important, changing the culture within institutions by holding colleges and coaches alike accountable (through penalties for teams) for the academic progress of their players. "Attitudes and behavior inside athletics programs have changed dramatically," Emmert said in the interview.
While he said it was too early to say exactly what the NCAA's members might consider changing, he said the association might consider tightening the standards under which freshman athletes can quality to compete, if data show that eligible athletes with low high-school grade point averages are particularly struggling to stay eligible, or limiting the number of credits that at-risk athletes can take in their senior year or during summers, if the review shows that they are "jamming too many courses" into those periods.
And while complaints are increasing on some campuses about the extent to which institutional funds are subsidizing sports programs, at a time of great economic distress -- leading to calls in some quarters for an end to such subsidies -- Emmert argued that subsidies for athletics are among the many cross-subsidies that colleges and universities provide: with the social sciences subsidizing the arts, and undergraduates subsidizing graduate education. "Athletics are another variable in that mix," he said.
Ultimately, Emmert said, all institutions except for the few handfuls whose sports programs are fully self-supporting are going to have to decide "what is the role of athletics within their model," and how much they want to underwrite it, "just as they're doing with how many hours the library is open, etc."
College Traits and Learning Outcomes
When it comes to student learning, what institutions do matters more than what they are.
That's the conclusion of a study presented  at ASHE Thursday by Patrick T. Terenzini and Hyun Kyoung Ro, a distinguished emeritus professor and doctoral candidate, respectively, at Pennsylvania State University's College of Education,
The study examined a wide range of often-used descriptors of colleges -- large/small, public/private, selective/open admissions, etc. -- and a set of practices used by institutions, and sought to determine which correlated more closely to the success of a large group of engineering students.
The researchers found that internal institutional practices -- the use of student-centered teaching approaches, the extent of students' involvement in non-engineering clubs, and the like -- were far more likely than the type of institution to determine the level of student outcomes. Or, as Terenzini put it, "what institutions do is more important than who or what they are."
That finding should make college leaders realize that they have more sway over student outcomes than they often tend to think, the study suggests. But it also has implications, the researchers suggest, for policy makers, who often overemphasize the importance of certain institutional characteristics, like those emphasized in college rankings.
"[T]he findings fairly clearly point to the predictive impotence of some of the most widely used indicators of 'institutional quality' (e.g., selectivity and mission)," the authors write. "This study suggests that what colleges and universities 'are' (in terms of their conventional characteristics) is less useful than what they 'do' internally (e.g., how they organize themselves and operate structurally and programmatically) in identifying educationally effective institutions and student experiences.... [E]ducationally effective practices reviewed ... are as likely (perhaps more likely) to be in use at less prestigious campuses as at their 'elite' counterparts. Thus, the common budget-allocation practices used in most state legislatures that privilege flagship campuses may have disadvantageous consequences for the undergraduates (and their parents) who attend other campuses in a state’s system. Moreover, administrators' and public policy makers' searches for specific 'best practices' may be short-sighted. The decisions they make -- and the resources they allocate -- may benefit from more refined and systemic views of the colleges and universities for which these leaders are responsible."