A question on Reddit popped up recently in AskSocialScience, asking why for-profit colleges and universities tend to have lower student outcomes than public universities.
Here’s my reply:
For-profits tend to have poor outcomes because they are 1) primarily distance-based, which is extremely difficult and is often the choice of people with external stressors that inhibit their ability to focus and succeed, and 2) have a habit of putting a lot of money into acquisition and retention and not so much on instruction. (This is changing, though, as I can tell you about my personal experiences with National, AMU, Capella, and Northcentral).
Take a look at the 2012 Harkin Report, a study that was done in the US Senate about for-profit schools. From the report, it became enormously evident that Americans were feeling like they were not getting a return on investment with regard to for-profit colleges. These were more expensive, had worse overall persistence and completion rates, and were generally regarded (thanks to aggressive marketing tactics) as diploma mills. Americans were dropping out at higher rates, raking up student loan debt, and getting angry that their hard-earned degrees were not leading to high-paying jobs like the American dream had promised them.
Are All For-Profits Just “Diploma Mills”?
Universities like Capella, for example, are accredited by the same institution that accredits Ivy League institutions. The place I’m getting my PhD is a for-profit, online institution, and is accredited by the same entity that accredits all state universities and colleges in the southeast United States.
Perception of for-profits tends to be abysmal for anyone not privy to how higher education actually works in society. Some think getting a degree is a guarantee–a guarantee that you will become gainfully employed, be able to support a family, and retire with a good pension. This is the great lie that we’ve all been told, left over from the Industrial Revolution. Remember when we told our kids you could get into a factory job out of high school and make enough money to support a family, buy a car, buy a house, and retire? Those days are gone, and it’s not higher education’s fault. Unfortunately, higher education is the most tangible thing to blame: I spent years getting a degree and now I can’t find a job–it MUST be education’s fault! (People really think this)
It doesn’t help that there are studies supporting this notion with regards to employment. Sometimes people think that having attended a for-profit college makes an applicant less worthy, but the reality of the situation is that for-profit students tend to be non-traditional (i.e., not right out of high school, tend to have dependents, tend to have one or more jobs, etc). More on this in the next section.
So no, for-profits are not “diploma mills,” since they are accredited by the same entity that is accrediting that school that is being sold as “better” than the online institution you were thinking about attending.
Are for-profits just preying on people to rack up student loan debt?
Yes, unfortunately, but not because for-profit education is inherently bad. These institutions recognized a gap in public education and filled it, using the principles of free market capitalism to make money and serve students. Think of it like this: public institutions have a gate-keeping process that weeds out people who otherwise would have not attended college anyway, and for-profit colleges tend to have very open admissions policies. This means that for-profits are going to enroll people who would have never gone to college in the first place, creating a population of people hyped up on marketing tactics but generally unprepared for the rigors of higher education. Combine this with a primarily distance-based pedagogy and you have a recipe for failure.
The 2012 Harkin Report identified some troubling statistics about for-profit higher education, one of which was that for-profit schools spend upwards of 50+% of their expenditures on marketing alone. In my opinion, this was unsettling to the Senate committee because it was a hard look at how capitalism solves problems. Again, we have to remember that for-profits didn’t just appear out of nowhere; there was a void created by public institutions that for-profits came in and filled.
So why are outcomes at for-profits so abysmal?
For-profits attract non-traditional adult learners, who have a unique learning style. On top of that, students who choose to attend for-profit schools tend to rationalize their choices for many reasons, one of which being that they feel more in control of their return on investment.
However, the open admissions policy coupled with distance education format is a recipe for outcomes disaster. Due to correspondence schools of yesteryear being scammy, distance education has been traditionally disregarded as less “genuine” and less respectable than in-person alternatives. However, as people with degrees from online schools do more and more great things, the perception of value for primarily distance education based schools is beginning to level out.
The recipe for disaster–online education coupled with open admissions policies–is why for-profit outcomes are so abysmal. Distance education is extremely tough; I’ve earned a BA, MA, and now I’m working on a PhD entirely online, while taking care of three kids, working a full-time job, and actively writing and publishing. People are, in my opinion, scared about people like me because I’m a non-traditional PhD: I’m not teaching as a stipulation of my matriculation (and subsequently, undergraduates and graduate students are not being taught by a master’s level practitioner, a huge problem in traditional universities); I’ve got a really successful book out there and in the works on another one; I’m a strong leader at the institution I work at… I’ve met plenty of people with motivation and ambition who can succeed in a distance education model, earn a degree, and go on and do what they want. I’ve also met people who are not intrinsically motivated, think a degree is going to solve whatever problems they’re having in life, and then get disappointed when they are in debt and now can’t find a job.
Speaking of graduate students teaching at universities: this is a cost-saving feature. Why have your PhD teach a class when one of that PhD’s students can teach it instead? Public institutions are cutting costs this way and through the adjunctivisation of higher education all the time, but we punish for-profits for navigating the capitalist rules of a free market and not public universities. Almost hypocritical, don’t you think?