The American higher education community contains three separate constituencies: They are public and private non-profit institutions, and proprietary or for-profit enterprises. There has long been a polite tension between the nation’s public and private non-profit higher education institutions. Both are in competition, in one way or another, for prestige, students, faculty, and philanthropy, and at the state and federal troughs. They expend millions of their operating budgets on lobbyists to promote individual institutions and their sectors in state capitals and Washington. Their respectful squabbles are periodically noted in the higher education and public media. Both not-for-profits appear to have a common perceived enemy that prompts their public indignation. In a tacit your-enemy-is-my-enemy alliance, they share a common enemy: for-profit higher education.
The Government Accountability Office’s— “the investigative arm of Congress” —undercover investigation of for-profit recruiting practices has been predictably followed by Congressional hearings and accompanying media attention. The latter has been particularly true in higher education’s major trade presses. These loyal allies tend to consistently promote a non-profit/public agenda at the expense of the for-profits. One higher education trade paper described the investigation as uncovering the “rot” in the for-profit sector. The whole spectacle has prompted predictable sanctimonious delight among higher education’s self-ordained elite sectors—non-profit private and publicly funded institutions and their trade group lobbyists. The findings confirm their zealot belief that any enterprise that does not share their non-profit orientation must be suspect. How else could the for-profits be steadily attracting more students in recent years? They must cheat and have been finally caught in the act— or so the non-profits want to rationalize the otherwise bad news. The College Board and National Center for Education Statistics respectively report:
The proportion of all degrees that were awarded by for-profit institutions increased from 3% to 7% between 1995-96 and 2005-06. In 1995-96, 9% of associate degrees were granted by for-profit institutions. A decade later, that proportion was 15%.
The ratio of students attending private nonprofit colleges to for-profit colleges has fallen from 3 to 1 to approximately 2 to 1.
A relatively few bad actors have actually been caught, yet the whole for-profit higher education sector is now being castigated for unscrupulously selling degree programs to naïve prospective students that lead to careers with low pay, limited employment opportunities and huge education debt. The same might be asked of the flood of attorneys and public relations grades that flood the job market each year.
A cursory examination of the program recruitment brochures published by many second-tier-and-below non-profits and publics will suggest similar questionable marketing practices. The disparity between their brochure hype and the realities presented in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Occupational Outlook Handbook is sobering. These sanctimonious not-for-profits should undergo the same undercover scrutiny. Higher education consumers deserve a level playing field.