Time for a Change.edu?

I recently finished Andrew Rosen’s Change.edu.  I found a lot to like in the book, but I also think the author missed an opportunity to clarify something important that I don’t understand about For-profit universities.  The book has six chapters and each is largely stand-alone.

  1. Harvard Envy – This is the same point Christensen & Eyring made in The Innovative University: That Harvard is the epitome of higher education and that which all (not-for-profit) universities strive for.
  2. Club College: Why so many colleges look like resorts — This chapter on the forces pushing schools to become like “Club Med” was powerful.  Admittedly, this has been a pet peeve of mine for years.   Should schools try to compete for students based on their amenities or should schools try to compete on the basis of their educational programs?  For me, the latter is a no-brainer.  At the same time, I’m well aware that students can’t easily compare the quality of one school’s programs over another, but they can and do select the school with the professional quality fitness center or hotel quality residence halls over schools that do not.   How do we get off that train?  I don’t know and neither apparently does Rosen except to say “Just don’t do it.”  Competing on amenities is like attack ads in politics:  We say they’re bad, but we believe they work.
  3. The Challenge of Community Colleges — This chapter on why community colleges are not the answer to higher education’s woes was unpersuasive to me.  According to Rosen, the problem with community colleges is they try to do too much, from offering vocational training to general education for students interested in transferring to four-year schools to offering hobby courses.  As I read this chapter, I found myself wondering if it wasn’t merely an attempt to justify the relatively narrow range of programs offered by the For-profits.  Rosen also argues that community colleges aren’t as cheap as people think because of the subsidies offered by the states.
  4. A Crucial Part of the Solution:  How a new kind of college serves a new kind of student – This is Rosen’s argument in favor of For-profit universities.  He reminds readers that when land grant universities began, and again when community colleges began, the reaction by traditional higher education was just like the reaction today to For-profit schools.  It’s clear to me that more people need higher education, both initially and as lifetime learning.  Rosen’s argument that For-profits are part of the solution makes sense.
  5. The Case Against Private-Sector Higher Education – This is the chapter which received acclaim for Rosen’s being open to the criticisms made against For-profit schools.  I found the chapter disappointing.  After paying lip service to the well-known examples of a few schools aggressively recruiting students from homeless shelters and obtaining loans for them, Rosen didn’t seriously address any other criticisms of the For-profit sector.
  6. 2036 and the Coming 25 years of Change in Higher Education – I really liked this chapter.  Rosen may be wrong on some of the details, but I think he’s nailed the major trends we’re going to see in higher education.

I think Rosen overreaches when he argues that the tuition (only)-based model of For-profit institutions is an advantage over the multiple funding streams of most non-profit schools.   He makes a good case for the way research and intercollegiate athletics can take on lives of their own, driving some schools in directions that shortchange undergraduate education.  I found his argument that public universities are in this same category, due to the subsidies provided by states, less convincing for a school like mine where state support is only slightly more than 20% of our budget, where we have no Division 1 athletic programs, and where faculty have substantially higher teaching loads than at research universities.  Additionally, I wasn’t convinced by his argument that For-profit schools are in fact cheaper than public universities.  Rosen says that For-profits are cheaper for tax payers since there are no public subsidies, but even if that’s true, it’s not the point.  He seems to conflate two distinct issues: the relationship between private costs and benefits, and the relationship between social costs and benefits.

If higher education provides a public good, and arguably it does (though admittedly we have done a poor job in recent years in making that point clear to taxpayers), then providing the right amount of higher education requires subsidy, assuming that the social benefit is there.  It’s not clear to me that the social benefit of schools with very low completion rates, like some For-profit institutions, justifies the costs, especially when the financing takes the form of government-provided or guaranteed loans.  When those loans are repaid, there is no cost to taxpayers, as Rosen states.  But when students fail to complete a degree, they often fail to repay the loans.

One of the criticisms by traditional colleges and universities about the for-profit schools is that the latter are providing mere certification, rather than education, or that at best they offer narrowly defined training.  The author missed a chance to speak directly to this criticism.  What is the vision of education offered by the for-profits?  Is it limited to a fairly narrow range of career-oriented fields?  Does that imply that those are all we should offer in higher education?

The strength of Change.edu is the author’s assertion that we must do a better job of measuring the learning that takes place at Not-for-profit schools.  Only then can we make an apples-to-apples comparison.  I note that while assessment is critical, not all the benefits of traditional higher education can (as yet) be measured, but we need to incorporate them in our assessment nonetheless.  If quantitative assessment is difficult, then qualitative assessment is worth pursuing.

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