NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

For-Profit Higher Education

December 14, 2011

In the past year, for-profit higher education providers have been thrust into the spotlight.  Largely missing from the debate, however, has been a more detailed look at how traditional and for-profit institutions differ in important areas like administration, instructor experience, mission and governance, data collection and use, and student recruitment and retention.  Ben Wildavsky, a senior fellow in research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation, tries to get beyond sensationalized headlines and examine these questions from the point of view of individuals who have moved from the traditional to the for-profit sector -- or kept a foot in both.

  • Trial, Error and Measurement: Entrepreneurial for-profits can move much faster to create new programs, adjust staffing levels and change curricula, according to Geri Malandra, a former University of Texas administrator and now provost of Kaplan University.
  • Rethinking the Faculty's Role: As a result of for-profit institutions' reliance on trial and error, a heavily standardized curriculum, and responsiveness to consumer demand, their faculty tends to look quite different from those at many traditional not-for-profit institutions. First and foremost, they are instructors rather than researchers. For-profits also evaluate prospective hires on their teaching skills and give new instructors explicit pedagogical training.
  • Practical Instruction and Student Support: Interviewees noted that for-profits often hire working professionals or retired college instructors to teach courses with a relentlessly practical emphasis. Since for-profits also enroll a higher proportion of nontraditional and at-risk students, they must provide more intensive student support services and flexible course options.
  • Quality Concerns and Governance: Those interviewed were generally quick to acknowledge some serious problems in the for-profit sector while underscoring that nontraditional students often face comparable difficulties and frequently experience poor outcomes in conventional institutions.

For-profits will certainly need to work hard to prove their worth, but the observations and experiences of those interviewed suggest that traditional colleges and universities will be badly mistaken if they assume that the travails of for-profits today mean that useful lessons cannot be drawn from their successes to date -- and those likely to occur in the future.

Source: Ben Wildavsky, "Crossing to the Dark Side?" American Enterprise Institute, December 13, 2011.

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