Opportunity Knocks

 Today’s edition of NPR’s Radio Times spent an hour on proprietary colleges: the for-profit world of DeVry, ITT, the University of Phoenix, and other schools familiar to anyone who takes public transportation or watches local TV, where their ads offer training and quick advancement in nursing, computing, office management, and a host of technical occupations. It was a great show, moving among the highly critical reporting of journalist Sharona Coutts; the cautious, qualified support of University of Virginia education professor Brian Pusser; and the insistent boosterism of Harris Miller, president and CEO of the Career College Association.

More and more Americans are pursuing certificates and associate’s degrees at the for-profit institutions, accounting for some 10% of all post-secondary enrollments in the nation, according to PusserThis is almost by definition a group of people who are underemployed, and not surprisingly many turn to federal loans to pay for this training.  In return for that financial risk, the for-profit colleges offer their students higher job placement rates, more flexible class schedules, and quicker credentialling than traditional higher-ed. There is no doubt that the schools provide what looks to many Americans like their only practical route to enhanced employment.

But Coutts and Pusser alert us to holes in that happy picture. Coutts, working for public interest media outlet ProPublica, draws our attention to disturbing government findings about the conduct of some proprietary schools, including aggressive recruiting and problematic admissions practices. Pusser makes the crucial point while they might show higher job placement rates than many community colleges, the for-profits set their students up for limited occupational achievement. That is, unlike our better community colleges, the for-profits are not preparing students to move on to baccalaureate coursework, let alone into the higher level, more highly paid occupational niches that come with graduate or professional training. That kind of mobility for graduates, let alone significant contributions to the nation’s creative talent pool, are outside their business plans. Since federal loans support students attending the for-profits, Pusser asks insightfully if this is really the best way to spend our public education dollars. Couldn’t we put that money into enhanced counselling and expanded course schedules in the public community, city, and junior colleges, to far greater effect?

These are questions I’m glad to see asked, as proprietary and trade schools have historically upheld patterns of economic discrimination against working class and minority Americans who cannot afford traditional higher-ed options. But even if you are not debating your own educational options, or interested in higher-ed policy, there are good reasons to listen to this hour of radio. Miller embodies a set of free market enthusiams that we hear in many other public policy arenas today, most recently regarding health care.  These seem to me to work against economic equity in ways both subtle and powerful.

For example, to Miller, the for-profits answer public demand for rapid, flexible, jobs-oriented training. They accommodate students’ individual lifestyle and financial preferences. …Options! : What’s not to like? Yet, when we say that market demand should shape education, we lose sight of how this particular sort of education cuts off opportunities, offering, as Pusser emphasizes,  a narrow range of subjects, little stress on critical thinking, and minimal possibility of transfer to traditional colleges.  Debts are incurred in many kinds of higher ed, but the for-profits exploit students’ willingness to take that financial risk without maximizing the students’ earning potential.  Miller may celebrate his schools’ focus on consumer desires, but Pusser wants us to aim higher. He returns our attention to collective goals: good uses of public money, an appropriately and thoroughly trained workforce, and I would add, responsible and equitable higher education. His concerns, to my mind, justify the probing critique that Coutts provides and many more questions about this growing educational/business sector.

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