tressiemc

some of us are brave

For-profits for the common good? A Tierney mash-up

As I said in an earlier post about William Tierney’s HuffPo article on for-profits, I respect Bill a great deal. However, with today’s memo on Inside Higher Education about the importance of political investment in higher education I am a bit confused.

In the HuffPo article, Bill says:

With all this bad press, one might wonder if we should keep for-profits around. I happen to be someone who believes that they are essential to the country’s welfare. We need more people participating in postsecondary education, and our public institutions simply do not have the capacity or wherewithal to grow. If our policy amounts to looking for ways to defund for-profits, such as appears to be the goal in California, we will not improve the long-term economic vitality of the state.

I did not, in my HuffPo response, disagree with that, per se. I disagreed that the framing of Bill’s argument made the importance of for-profits a logical solution to a problem framed to justify the solution. The other option not discussed, but just as viable, is strengthening the system of public higher education; incentivizing public colleges to engage in more flexible learning options like online and hybrid programs, and challenging the status culture that prizes selectivity over accessibility at all levels. It is, perhaps, an audacious suggestion but I fear that if we take audacious off the public policy table we concede to the rightness of market logics in education AND I DO NOT CONCEDE THAT.

Today, Bill (with Micheal Olivas) issued a memo, published by Inside HigherEd (IHE). It is a public call to the presidential cabinets to seriously engage the needs of higher education during this election cycle. I agree that we must agitate for these discussions to be had. What I am somewhat befuddled by is the language in this essay when juxtaposed against the earlier article:

Student debt now exceeds credit card debt. Whereas significantly more people should be participating in the postsecondary sector the potential exists that the country will see fewer students entering and graduating with a certificate or degree. Ample empirical evidence points to the impact of financial aid and debt on attending college, on persistence, and on graduation. Until recently the country could anticipate that increasing number of students of color and first-generation students would participate in higher education, but now the very real possibility exists that fewer students will attend college in the future. Until we resolve the vexing issues concerning needed immigration reform, we squander significant talent.

One of my primary concerns about Bill’s HuffPo essay was the absence of any discussion of who for-profits serve. Those students of color and first-generation students Bill and Micheal worry about leaving behind in the IHE post? They’re disproportiantely enrolled in for-profit colleges. And to the impact of debt on persistance, for-profit students — again, many of them the same students of color and first generations of concern in this passage — graduate with higher debt loads and have lower persistence and completion rates than traditional counterparts with similar characteristics.* So, if we are worried about black, brown, and first-gen students being shut out of the opportunity structure due to debt and low persistence and completion should we also be comfortable with for-profit colleges as the solution to expanding college capacity?
The IHE essay goes on to say:
Throughout the 20th century a hallmark of American higher education was the idea of academic freedom. Tenure came about to protect academic freedom. Although advances in technology and online learning provide significant possibilities for improving learning, a postsecondary education cannot be bereft of engaged critical inquiry amongst students and faculty.
Again, what sector of higher education are we talking about? For-profits, the ones Bill finds so essential to the health of higher education, have resisted the idea of faculty governance and academic freedom as disruptive to their profit motives.
Finally, there’s this:
America’s postsecondary institutions exist to advance the common good.

Few people believe that as deeply and fundamentally as do I. In this I am a Deweyian all the way.

But, again, is this true for all postsecondary institutions?  For-profit college leaders and lobbyists have not been shy about saying that they are not in the business of common good. They are in the business of business.
There are two ways to explain this. In the IHE article perhaps postsecondary institutions is being constructed differently than it is in the HuffPo article. These are two different audiences, after all. The two essays also have two different purposes. I get that.
I also get that within traditional higher education we too often obscure our biases and assumptions in amorphous terms that, well, morph to suit our purposes in any specific given context.
I imagine that in the IHE the writers weren’t talking about all of higher education. They were talking about traditional higher education. In the HuffPo piece for-profits were being embedded in the greater landscape of postsecondary institutions….but for certain people. Not OUR type of people.
I cannot shake the feeling that often when we talk about the greater landscape of higher education, with for-profits embedded as necessary to expansion and capacity issues, that we’re talking about adding another layer of stratification to an already stratified system. We, traditional academics and educators, we exist for the common good. For-profit students exist to be trained. We have the right kind of training to be trusted with academic freedom. Faculty in for-profits are best-suited for efficiency of content delivery.
I, too, hope that there is a discussion of the scope, function, and form of higher education in this country during this presidential cycle.
Sadly, I suspect that if those of us in this business cannot be more honest and self-critical about what our scope, function and form is, that is unlikely to happen.
**There is substantial empirical evidence that for-profits have much higher persistence and completion rates at the sub-baccalaureate certificate level.
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This entry was posted on August 14, 2012 by in Uncategorized.