The Way Forward for Higher Education Is Not For-Profit Colleges

The premises of William G. Tierney's argument about the value of for-profit colleges to the greater economy are sound, but his conclusion -- that for-profits are essential to economic growth -- is debatable.

At the heart of the recent Senate report on For-Profit Higher Education are statistics that no one, including the for-profit sector, contests. The average cost of a two-year associate's degree at a for-profit college is $35,000 as opposed to $8,200 at a community college. The average cost of a four-year bachelor's degree at a for-profit college (the fastest growing segment of the for-profit sector) is $63,000 as opposed to $52,500 at a comparable top-tier, state flagship university. What is not up for debate is that an education at a for-profit college is a very expensive proposition.

What is not discussed in Professor Tierney's analysis or by many on either side of the public debate about the value of for-profit higher education is who most often pays for that expensive proposition. The growth of the for-profit sector has come largely from the growth of students of color and women. Black enrollment in for-profit colleges increased 218 percent between 2004 and 2008. Women, many of them single parents and low income, now comprise 70 percent of the for-profit student population. An argument that for-profit colleges are essential to the growth of the economy is implicitly suggesting that minorities, women, and low-income adults need an expensive post-secondary credential to participate in the workforce of the future.

I reject the notion that the only way to create economic opportunity for the least among us is for them to pay the most for a college education.

If we need more post-secondary education for more Americans we can and should invest in the nation's community college sector. Open enrollment two and four year public colleges offer a second chance at a college degree for those too often failed by K-12 inequities. If flagship public universities have suffered from government disinvestment in the past decade, community colleges and less prestigious public universities have been devastated. According to one report, the proportion of revenues that public colleges and universities received from state appropriations dropped from 38.3 percent in 1991-1992 to 24.4 percent in 2008-2009. That decline in funding disproportionately affects non-elite public colleges, i.e. the ones best positioned to serve the population that is served by for-profit colleges. We underfund public higher education while simultaneously subsidizing the growth of the for-profit college sector through federal financial aid. If for-profit colleges are the only way to meet future economic demands it is because our public policy has made it the only option.

For their part, the traditional public college sector has abandoned the students who flock to for-profits. The race for prestige exists at every level of public higher education. Sadly, there is little cache in being the college with the strongest reading remediation record. The glory is in being selective, not in being accessible. The good news is that this position is not intractable. Just as is the case with public funding, we can and should challenge public higher education to live up to its mission to serve all students. That means challenging norms about who should be a student and what delivery, instruction, and college should look like.

We agree on the statistics about for-profit colleges: they are large, they make a great deal of money, and they serve a lot of students. But that their size and money makes them the only way forward for all of public higher education is a false choice. My position is not that for-profit colleges should not exist. Proprietary schools have existed in the U.S. almost as long as Harvard University. But the current environment makes for-profit colleges the only choice for millions of students and for reasons that manufactured at the structural level. For-profit sector enthusiasts like to talk about the virtue of the free market to decide what education it wants. True free markets mean real competition and right now the for-profit sector does not have much of any.

We can invest in public higher education. We can de-stigmatize non-elite higher education. We can give working class, low-income aspirational students another viable, accessible, affordable option for training and education. To suggest otherwise is not a logical conclusion from the premises, but a lack of imagination and commitment. There's another way forward. We have but only to choose it.