Should academia be addressing for-profit education?

First off, a little self-advertisement: Nahida very kindly asked me to write a guest post for the fatal feminist, so head over if you want to read some rambling thoughts about Quranic revisionism in Western scholarship.

This is going to be another one of those posts that’s got nothing really to do with the history of Islam, but that is maybe relevant to scholarship in general, namely, the rise of for-profit education and whether the traditional academe should be doing anything about it.

For those who haven’t heard, the Obama administration has been trying to increase regulation of for-profit schools, in particular by setting requirements for the return-on-investment ratio of the school’s cost to resulting employment.  In part due to these changes, Corinthian Colleges, the publicly-traded company that owns many for-profits, has declared bankruptcy and will selling off many of its campuses.  The increased administrative attention has also led to several state and civil lawsuits against for-profits, claiming gross misrepresentation and predatory sales techniques.  Here’s a truly disgusting article from buzzfeed about students having their federal loan applications effectively submitted for them with no understanding of how much they owe, and John Oliver being brilliant in his discussion of how absolutely horrible the education at a for-profit can be, despite costing upwards of five times more than a community college.  Unfortunately, the new regulations are significantly less strict than what the Obama administration had announced earlier this year, and despite Corinthian’s bankruptcy, its campuses will likely be sold to other for-profit education companies and the system will likely continue.

I’m sad to say that despite working in education, as both an academic and as an administrator, the news articles this summer were the first I had heard about any of this.  I’m also sad to admit that as an educator and advocate for education reform, if you had asked me six months ago who goes to Phoenix University or ITT Tech, I probably would have said, “stupid people.”  For-profit education has been around for a couple of decades –  I remember the low-production value ITT Tech ads that ran during daytime television when I was a kid, and teasing my sister, when she was already an engineering student at CalTech, that should get a degree in rocket science in just six months!  It says so right there!

So for me, part of the tragedy in reading these articles was being reminded that having access to a university education is a huge privilege, but so is knowing about universities and what a university education is supposed to be like.  I’m sad to say that it genuinely hadn’t occurred to me how many people really don’t know what to expect from a university, and wouldn’t just laugh hysterically at a school calling day in and day out demanding you enroll, or expecting you to enroll on the spot if you come for a campus visit.  Reading the stories of people who’ve been taken advantage of by these institutions, it’s clear how adept these schools are at playing off those circumstances as benefits – look how great a candidate you are, we can sign you up right now!  Or, you better sign up right now or you’ll have to wait until next year!

Which brings me to the question of whether academics should be doing something to help the students who are being taken advantage of by these institutions, or I suppose more specifically, why aren’t we?  Admittedly, traditional academia has problems of its own, from poverty-level adjunct jobs and an ever-dwindling tenure job market to continuing problems with sexual harassment, racism, and classism.  But I suspect that part of the problem is that many academics are in the same mindset as I was – it really just doesn’t seem like our problem, and we’re not 100% sure this isn’t the victim’s fault for being taken advantage of.

The other problem is, as I’m sitting here writing this, I’m not really sure what we could do to help.  Two things come to mind, but both would require a ton of commitment from individual academics, and one would require actual institution support:

  1. Schools need to provide actual college counseling, and academics could help teach people what going to college should look like.  I recognize that a lot of the people being enrolled by these colleges are not school-aged any more, but having available resources where people learn about schools should be part of high school curriculum, as well as, ideally, job centers, rehabilitation centers, and the VA.  Academics are in an ideal position to give real feedback about university education.  But this would obviously require direct intervention, when many academics already feel they have too many ‘other’ obligations on their time besides research.
  2. The effectiveness of for-profit recruiting among low income and rural communities is also a tribute to how ineffective universities continue to be at targeting these communities.  Now, it’s worth pointing out, as several of these articles do, that many of the students admitted to the for-profit programs could not qualify for a community college or state school – they have no GED or their English language capacity is far too low – but that only make up one portion of the admitted students.  Many of these people could be enrolled in similar programs in community colleges for a fraction of the cost.  This is especially true of veteran’s – despite the absolutely pivotal role the GI Bill played in shaping the modern American middle class after World War II, many universities have cut or cancelled entirely their VA recruitment programs.  This is not only terrible for veterans, who need support for education and job training, but also for universities who are constantly desperate for new financial streams.

Disappointingly, I don’t know how even how to start getting these issues on academics’ radar, let alone get people involved.  But it’s heartbreaking to me that in this day and age, there are people so horrifically being taken advantage of simply because they wanted an education, and that the field of professional educators, of which I’m a part, seem so completely detached.

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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One Response to Should academia be addressing for-profit education?

  1. Pingback: 7 Myths about Why Higher Education is Failing | askanislamicist

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