some of us are brave

Project Rose: What Language Says About Legitimacy

You may or may not know that my own research is concerned with the legitimacy of for-profit higher education, particularly what that legitimacy means for outcomes and structural opportunity. So maybe you can imagine that the Chronicle article this week about “Project Rose” is one of my favoritest things in recent memory.

Public Domain

The piece, by Goldie Blumenstyk, reveals an internal memo that circulated the sector’s professional organization the ACPSCU. The memo was a guide to member institutions about how to talk about the sector in language that would convey a greater sense of organizational legitimacy. The article says:

Would that which we call a “parent company” seem worthier if it were a “university system?” Would it impress Congress if student “re­cruiters” were called by any other name? “Coun­selors,” perhaps?

It seems so—at least to those in the for-profit-college industry’s main trade association. For at least a year, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities quietly pursued a campaign, called “Project Rose,” whose goal was to change the vernacular of the sector to de-emphasize its retail-grade jargon.

There is much here that is fascinating but I keep getting stuck on this part:

The intent, it says, was to ensure that when representatives of for-profit institutions speak, the words they use to describe their institutions, education, and students “command respect and reflect professionalism.” The document goes on to list a series of “problematic” advertising tactics and statements made during calls with investors that fostered negative images of the industry, such as “Rise in Student Aid Entitlements = Automatic Revenue Bump.”

That’s interesting because of the implied audience. The sector’s re-tooling campaign is not aimed at potential students as much as it is aimed at regulators, politicians, and the general public. I find that fascinating because it suggests the sector is aware of its compromised institutional legitimacy.

Many have a lingering, nagging perception of for-profits as not “real” college. But instead of tackling that perception through the building of social networks, say, among alumni or faculty it proposes to tackle the perception of politicians and journalists. That supports something I suggest: the sector is far more concerned with its political legitimacy (it’s legal right to operate) than it is it’s cultural or cognitive legitimacy (the general acceptance of the institution in the public imagination).

I think that’s a wrong move for a sector that is likely at a crossroads.

There is now entirely too much money (about $50 billion according to some estimates) for the sector to lose it’s legal right to confer degrees or accept federal financial aid. That ship sailed long ago with a crew of lobbyists at the helm. But the cultural legitimacy of the sector is the biggest concern. It not only threatens the expansion of the sector but it undermines the value of the degrees of the students from the sector. That’s a recipe for continued failure.

Again, very, very interesting. Now, who do I have to pay to get my hands on that Project Rose report? Goldie? You like good coffee and gold coins, don’t you Goldie?


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This entry was posted on March 20, 2012 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .
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