By J. M. Anderson
In his recent book, Change.edu: Rebooting for the New Talent Economy, Andrew Rosen writes: "It's rare for anyone to lay out a clear case as to exactly what the problem is with private-sector education." Ok, here it is. The problem is not, as Rosen says, that the pairing of the words for-profit and education makes advocates of traditional education like me squeamish; it's that most for-profits work from a model that undermines the essence of what higher education is about.
Is Rosen right that most traditional colleges and university have abandoned the mission of educating students for the great world? Absolutely. Have inferior colleges lusted for too long after the prestige of the elite universities (what he dubs "Harvard envy"), spending more time, money, and energy than they should on research and scholarship than they do on teaching and learning? No disagreement here. Have they also attempted to keep the supply-line of students flowing by pumping millions of dollars into luxurious residential halls, fitness centers, water parks, and cafeterias--"Club College" at its best? Spot on again.
Rosen's also right that community colleges, which he admires for servicing nontraditional and under-served students, are failing because they try to be everything to everyone and, like their four-year counterparts, are "stretched across myriad constituencies." Overburdened, excluding students, refusing to raise tuition, they follow an economic model that subscribes to the idea that "paying for education is primarily the responsibility of taxpayers, with students to be shielded from cost to the maximum extent."
Are Teachers Just Hirelings?
But is more private-sector education the big change that we ought to embrace? Only if students are customers and professors mere hirelings who have less academic freedom in a curriculum that is more centralized, standardized, controlled.
For Rosen, the virtue of the for-profit model is twofold. First, it is driven by tuition and fees and forces for-profits to keep costs (not necessarily tuition) down. Second, "private-sector educators are able to tailor their education to specific, identified learning outcomes and measure performance against those outcomes." They can "focus almost exclusively on students (both recruiting and educating)."
How so? By operating "in a far more centralized fashion"--meaning a single syllabus mandated in each course; the same readings from class to class; written assignments, quizzes, and exams that assess the same content; supervising faculty more closely to provide a uniform level of quality; designating learning outcomes in class that come together into a set of program-level outcomes across all courses in a given major.
Faculty are treated as hirelings--not as experts in their field--who are basically given a syllabus and a textbook and told, "Teach this class." At the for-profit where I taught, I wasn't even allowed to assign additional (i.e. real) books or primary sources. That's not how genuine teaching and learning work, but it doesn't trouble those who are engineering education at for-profits: "By refusing to cede complete control of course design and learning assessments to each individual faculty member, it's possible for proprietary colleges to be better able to make sure learning actually happens."
The alleged tradeoff is that this "standardized, closely evaluated process" will "hit the mark consistently. More importantly, by standardizing the curriculum, it is possible to measure outcomes and make continuous improvements that will ensure that each term of students is getting a better learning experience than the term before."
But by Rosen's own admission for-profits are only graduating 38.1 percent of their students. This abysmal showing is corroborated by other studies--for example, a 2010 Education Trust report by Education Trust found that only 22 percent of the first-time, full-time bachelor's degree students graduate within six years, compared to 55 percent at public institutions and 65 percent at private nonprofit colleges. The powerhouse University of Phoenix Online is one of the worst offenders, graduating only 5.1 percent of students in six years (fewer than 1 percent of its more than 253,000 students) in its B.A. program at its biggest campus.
Rosen dismisses such studies, claiming that they compare apples to oranges, since students at for-profits are more likely to have kids, or full-time jobs, or be very poor--unlike typical students at traditional four-year colleges and universities. But a recent apples-to-apples study shows that graduates of for-profits also lag behind their peers in earnings and employment.
Rosen gives the impression that while students at Club College and Party U are guzzling beer, eating sushi, rock-climbing, or working out in the gym, all the real studying is going on at the for-profits. Nearly halfway through the book, we finally hear about academic rigor. Patricia Feggins, a fifty-three-year-old student, was "impressed by the academic rigor of the Kaplan classes--even if, at times, she was slightly overwhelmed by the number of research papers and essays her professors required her to write."
I don't question the sincerity of this student; I question whether she is qualified to judge what is appropriate college-level rigor. At the for-profit where I worked, I typically stopped teaching my subject every second week because I had to teach students basic skills: how to read a textbook, how to take notes, how to follow an argument during a discussion, how to write.
The problem was compounded because they were expected to do in ten weeks what most students do in a sixteen or seventeen-week semester. They showed almost no interest in learning how to think; they wanted to be told what to think so that they could pass the class and move another step closer to the job their recruiter promised awaited them once they got their degree. This mindset is reinforced by educational model designed to equip people for the marketplace rather than produce human beings who are adaptable, curious, questioning, and capable of learning new concepts.
Somehow technology is supposed to change this by making "education more responsive, engaging, and interesting. Imagine simulations that enable students to experience how blood courses through the body, how a volcano erupts, or how change in the price affects all competitors in a marketplace. Imagine robots and avatars that enable a student to travel to Germany in the age of Bismark, to Craig Venter's lab as he worked to sequence the human genome, to Washington's headquarters on Christmas 1776, or to the Enron boardroom."
Education as easy as watching TV or browsing the web. Never mind the effort of learning about these great achievements through reading documents, analyzing sources, and working through them to come to one's own understanding. That's so old school. Everything must be visual, literal, and available to students with a click of a mouse--hence the popularity of Wikipedia and the Khan Academy.
Toward the end of his book Rosen predicts what the higher education landscape will look like by 2036: more mobile, more disaggregated, more personalized, more focused on learning outcomes, more accessible, more global, more cool. I predict that it will be all of these things much sooner than that.
By 2036, higher education will be so career-driven, technocratic, standardized, centralized, efficient, and soulless, people will be clamoring to change it back to the way it was in the good old days.----------------
J. M. Anderson is dean of Humanities, Fine Arts, and Social Sciences at Illinois Valley Community College, and author of The Skinny on Teaching: What You Don't Learn in Graduate School.