Thursday, December 13, 2012

Doing Less with More: the Social Significance of For-Profit Higher Education in the US

Portraying higher education as a business is the dominant metaphor for higher education in our time. By now it is commonplace to consider students as consumers, faculty as producers, degrees and publications as products, while universities labor to protect their brand.

To some extent, US higher education has always functioned at least partially as a market, with institutions vying for faculty, students, and funding. Clark Kerr defines responsiveness to the market as a fundamental characteristic of institutions in the American system, and calls it a “gift of history”. However, in concert with the historical US marketization of education has been the longstanding philosophical tradition from Thomas Jefferson, to John Dewey and more recently to others such as Henry Giroux, of the assumption that democracy demands education as a public good. 

In response to the encroachment of corporate power into the public sphere of education, Giroux called for educators and others to mobilize a civic dialogue providing an alternative conception of the meaning and purpose of public education in resistance to the rise of corporate influence. For-profit higher education represents perhaps the clearest manifestation of this encroachment, as the for-profit higher education institution is a company or corporation. Despite the staggering growth in the for-profit higher education industry in recent years, alternative civic dialogues are not often voiced within the academy.  Instead, the criticisms of proprietary institutions are more often located in the popular press, documentaries, or Congressional reports, and tend to center on issues of student loan repayment, graduation rates, and admissions activities. These are essentially unfair business practices, with the larger, far more significant concerns of race, power, and politics, left largely unexplored.  Within many of these narratives, avoiding fraudulent behavior seems to be the sole standard that society demands of higher education.  In fact, some voices advocate for public and other institutions to emulate the “efficiencies” of the corporate model

Yet, if we look at the for-profit sector of higher education, it is clear that the exponential growth in the industry is far from evenly distributed. Rather, it has occurred primarily in groups that are traditionally underrepresented in higher education. Currently, the University of Phoenix is the largest educator of minority students. In fact, for-profit institutions enroll a disproportionate share of non-Asian minority, low-income, and female students. The for-profit industry hails this accomplishment as “access,” yet questions about what exactly their students have gained access to seem to go unasked.

Publicly traded, and yet publicly funded through federal and state student loans, this sector of higher education demonstrates what waits at the bottom of the slippery slope of marketization in higher education.  Absorbing roughly 30% of the federal student loan funds plus multiple private loans in many cases, and then spending approximately 25% of the budget on marketing, the for-profit sector demonstrates the incongruity of shareholder profits and the public good (see Harkin Report). Standard criticisms of the for-profit model highlight the higher tuitions, low graduation rates, high percentages of part-time faculty, high student loan defaults, and frequent indictments for fraud.  Yet, by allowing business practices to become the center of the debate, critics have seemingly acquiesced to the corporate instrumentalist vision of education, at least for large numbers of minorities and non-traditional students who enroll in such programs, accepting that for those students at least, getting a job upon graduation that pays enough to service student loan repayments is enough. Elements of racism and even a kind of Social Darwinism permeate some of this discourse, where prepackaged curriculum taught by part-time faculty in abandoned store fronts, or online, counts as “access to higher education” for minority students who for reasons that remain unstated, “could not be served” by traditional public institutions.  Capacity within the public system is often cited as the justification for tolerating this system, but such an excuse rings hollow in a nation that originated massification of higher education and is widely regarded as the leader in higher education worldwide.

For their part, public institutions espouse diversity and tout carefully calculated minority and traditionally underserved students. However, there is little to no consideration for the issues raised by a profit driven industry feeding off the raging need for higher education left unmet by the current public and private non-profit system. Moreover, research on for-profit institutions and the students they serve is scant. Policing only the “consumer protection” fundamentals of the programs seems to assuage the sense of responsibility of the academy, public institutions, government, and society in general to rectify the exclusions from civic engagement that the for-profit, instrumentalist manifestation of higher education perpetuates.

Giroux called for “educators [to] confront the march of corporate power by resurrecting a noble tradition, extending from Horace Mann to Martin Luther King Jr, that affirms education as a political process encouraging people to identify themselves as more than consuming subjects, and democracy as more than a spectacle of market culture” (2001).  While the fraudulent practices of some proprietary institutions are certainly egregious, the issues of “gainful employment” must not be allowed to dominate the discussion.  Instead, the debate should also consider true issues of access centered on larger social realities of power and oppression. The debate should consider alternate conceptions of higher education in America that would provide access for all. Without resistance to the continued vocationalization of higher education for minority and other non-traditional students, without demands for noncommercial goals for higher education including minority and non-traditional students of all ages, and without insistence on the integral and potentially transforming role of faculty as more than messengers delivering a pre-packaged product of mass produced curriculum, democracy and the institutions originally designed to serve it, have been reduced to mere spectacle in this market culture.


Polish translator said...

I was always supporting privately owned education. Good schools, no matter whether private or public, they will defend themselves with the success of their graduates. Ivy League doesn't complain, I guess.

Christopher Lubienski said...

The Ivy League schools are private, but not for-profit like Phoenix (although they can be accused of increasingly behaving that way). Also, there's a good argument to be made that elite schools are good largely because they attract good students. But Dr. Witt points out that the for-profits can't stand on the success of their students.