For-profit Colleges and the Lost Soul of America

When will our education stop being all about the money?!
Image by douglas reeser.
by douglas reeser on August 15, 2012
Times are tough out there. The job market is tight and there don't seem to be many options for a lot of us. As a graduate student working on his PhD, I find myself in a bit of a transition. I've been in Belize, working on my research, for almost a year and a half (I'm certainly not complaining about that part), and so have been out of the job market for a while. Before this stage of my training, I was teaching at the university level, and had a paid graduate assistant position. I still relied on some student loans to get by, but at least I had work. Fast forward to the present, and I find myself broke and heading home after a very costly, yet productive research experience. Those positions I had when I left are gone, and I haven't found anything else related to my field to transition into. I briefly considered taking a position at one of the online for-profit universities, but for a number of reasons, quickly decided, "Fuck that."

It turns out that I made the right decision. The very idea of "profit" is beginning to disturb me. The flip side of profit is that it comes at someone or something else's expense. Where the university is concerned, public and non-profit universities have largely moved to a business model of operations, and the profit has not gone to students or teachers. This shift has coincided with a rise in administrators, and huge financial stresses that have rarely been seen in the world of academia. Budget cuts, department closures, and rising tuition have all been common among the newly business-modeled universities around the US. And meanwhile, student debt has sky-rocketed.

If public and non-profit universities have seemingly lost sight of their vision - which I would think would be primarily "education" - where do for-profit universities stand in this picture. Certainly they don't stand with the interests of students and teachers, unless they are also shareholders. Unlikely. These thoughts were confirmed by a new report overseen by US Senator Tom Harkin. This and a couple of other things contributed to my feeling that taking a job with a for-profit institution would be akin to selling my soul.

The Harkin Report. The New York Times (here) and Inside Higher Education (here) both reported on the findings of the study that investigated for two years the for-profit college industry. According to the NY Times, for-profit colleges are part of a $32 billion per year industry that operate based on a number of highly questionable practices. Some of the findings include:
The bulk of the for-profit colleges’ revenue, more than 80 percent in most cases, comes from taxpayers. Enrolling students, and getting their federal financial aid, is the heart of the business, and in 2010, the report found, the colleges studied had a total of 32,496 recruiters, compared with 3,512 career-services staff members. Among the 30 companies, an average of 22.4 percent of revenue went to marketing and recruiting, 19.4 percent to profits and 17.7 percent to instruction.
Their chief executive officers were paid an average of $7.3 million, although Robert S. Silberman, the chief executive of Strayer Education, made $41 million in 2009, including stock options. With the Department of Education seeking new regulations to ensure that for-profit programs provide training for “gainful employment,” the companies examined spent $8 million on lobbying in 2010, and another $8 million in the first nine months of 2011.
The report doesn't end there. Inside Higher Education noted the high drop-out rates at for-profit colleges:
The investigation found that large numbers of students at for-profits fail to earn credentials, citing a 64 percent dropout rate in associate degree programs, for example. It also links those high dropout rates to the relatively small amount of money for-profits spend on instruction. 
For-profits “devote tremendous amounts of resources to non-education related spending,” the report said, with the sector spending more revenue on both marketing and profit-sharing than on instruction.
Pretty damning stuff, and enough to keep me from even thinking about participation - even if it becomes the only teaching job I can get. Quite randomly, just before the Harkin Report was released, Recycled Minds received a series of emails from two different parties offering to write guest posts. The email thread from both parties was titled the same: "Guest Post for - Recycled Minds." Apparently they give recruiters fill-in-the-blank subject lines. The requests were pleasant enough, and we gave the first one consideration, as we knew little about the entire for-profit college industry at the time. On June 14, 2012, we received the following:
I hope this email finds you well. I only recently started reading your blog, I am a freelance writer, regularly write for Online Universities. I was wondering if you would be interested in publishing a guest post on your blog.

I could write on any topic you wish, or I can simply come up with a post that I believe would supplement your blog. I just need a link to my homepage on my anchor text in the author by-line. Thanks so much for taking the time to read this; please let me know if this is something you might be interested in.
The "writer" provided links to a number of articles that covered topics such as how to write an effective short story, the top 5 iphone aps, indie-bookstore survival, and how to sell your ebook. We decided to inquire further by responding that we could be interested, and asking about a potential article topic. Five days later, on June 19th, we received the following email:
First of all, thanks for taking the time to reply to my request.

Here's what I'm thinking. In light of all the news surrounding NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's choice to regulation the size of sodas and other sugary drinks, I'd like to write a post discussing the difference between health education and imposing regulations that dictate dietary changes. The NYC soda case brings up a lot of questions about how involved the government and other public entities should be in general health topics such as obesity, smoking, proper dieting habits, etc. My post would also explain how difficult it is to disseminate offical information about health to the general public.

How does that sound? I think the topic would fit fairly well in your blog's niche, but feel free to change and/or reject it for something else.
Hm. That sounded interesting, even if it was a topic completely unrelated to her other article examples. We like to support creativity and often explore new topics here on Recycled Minds, however the offer at the end - that we could change the topic or reject if for something else - sounded pretty desperate. In light of the source, she was likely arguing for less government regulation (although in the health arena), something close to the vest of the for-profit college industry. Apparently the "writer" would write anything as long as we published it and linked to her website. We had yet to respond when we got our second request from a different writer three days later on June 22nd:
I was wondering whether you accept guest posts for your blog or not. I am an experienced freelancer writer, and I enjoy expanding my writing abilities to cover ideas that I find interesting. 
If you are in publishing a guest post, I would like to offer you some solid content in exchange for a link to my website, Best Colleges, on my anchor text in the author by-line. I can write and research any topic you'd like covered, or else I'm confident that I can come up with something that would appeal to your readership. If published, the article would be your sole property, so you can edit it any way that wish.
This "writer" should think about cleaning up her email before sending it as an offer to write. Maybe she went to one of these online universities. Either way, her offer came with sample articles as well, and included topics like finding a green college, how to maintain your blog while away from your computer, producing popular content, and even one that questioned the need for the Department of Education (who needs educational standards when the free market has control?!). We knew we would never post an article from one of these "writers", but decided to see if they would give us any further information on their connections to the industry. On June 28th, we sent them both the following email:
Apologies for the delayed response - we've actually been talking about your interest in contributing. Interestingly, yours is the second request from an online-university website that we have received in the last couple of weeks. Before moving forward, we would be interested to know more about your relationship with the online-university website. In particular, we are curious to know if you are hired by the company to write articles and link to them?
Thank you for any information you can provide.
We probably shouldn't be surprised, but neither of the "writers" ever got back in touch with us. They didn't respond to our email or even ask again about their guest column. The lack of response however, makes it seem like we discovered a little secret of the industry - one that can not be talked about. We assume that the "writers" are being paid based on how many click-throughs they get from their columns, but really, we don't know how the scheme works. Whatever the story, it feels dishonest, and is just another sign of how far we have fallen as a nation and as a species. Today, profit comes before people, and it's a sad world for all of us.
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6 comments:

  1. John J.4:02 PM

    I think it has become more than evident that private industry almost never has the public interest at heart. By its definition, it has the private interest at heart. There are just some things that need to remain outside of the private sector, education, health, and politics come to mind.

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  2. Anonymous4:04 PM

    Strange that they wouldn't get back to you. What would they really have to hide here, besides the fact that they're just hacks?

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  3. First, "Fuck that" is a great response, glad you took it there. Second, that blows my mind that 64 percent drop out and if it is indeed due to the lack of education being provided them, I can't believe these "for profits" still exist. Third, I receive a lot of email about "music" type people want to link up. I've never asked them what the story is behind these requests (I've just deleted them) but it would be interesting to see what type of response they had.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Tender - just feeling out ways to let my personality out through my writing a little bit more... and yeah, the entire for-profit college thing is pretty crazy. It seems to have come out of nowhere and gone through quick and huge growth. Sounds like a bubble to me!

      Interesting about the music-industry offers. I'm sure there is a common model that is used to generate profit. Something to do with saturating the web with links to their products, whether it's music, school, or whatever, which would in theory drive more potential customers to their sites. More potential customers probably leads to more actual customers. There's probably way more to it, but I would think this is part of it...

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  4. Because of financial problems, I had no choice but to drop my college life. After a year, my parents told me that I can go back to college, I had a hard time in adjusting but thanks to the people from college admissions counseling who helped me out.

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  5. Smoking as a health topic? Why not? I would like to support this idea. My new york cosmetic dentist always tells me not to engage in smoking for it has a dreadful effect to man’s health.

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