Threshold Questions

In this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Joe Nocera has the sort of superficially thoughtful opinion piece that increasingly characterizes America’s “chattering classes.”

The essay is a defense of for-profit colleges. Nocera acknowledges the obvious: such colleges enroll only 12% of the nation’s college students, but gobble up 25% of all federal student aid; fewer than half of their students graduate; and some 47% of those who were paying back their student loans in 2009 had defaulted by 2010. Despite these statistics, and numerous lawsuits over unethical recruitment practices, Nocera asserts that “The country really can’t afford to put [for-profit colleges] out of business.”

Why? Nocera says that education is increasingly critical to the ability to get a decent job, and that for-profit schools educate poor, working class students who might otherwise not be able to attend any college.

Think about the assumptions built into that argument.

The first (and in my mind, the most pernicious) is the conflation of education and certification. One of the thorniest issues in higher education today revolves around that tension. Parents understandably want their children to emerge from college with a marketable skill, but if that is all they emerge with—if students do not graduate with a deeper appreciation of the importance of history, culture, literature, science and philosophy—then they have attended a trade school, not an educational institution.

The second assumption Nocera makes is that kids from poor and working-class families are prevented from attending state-supported and nonprofit colleges and universities. He is only half right; poor students with poor academic credentials do have trouble accessing institutions of higher education, but not simply because they are poor. Colleges and universities that are genuinely engaged in education must have standards; allowing students to enroll who clearly do not have the wherewithal to succeed not only diminishes the classroom experience for more prepared students, it is manifestly unfair to those who are admitted despite being doomed to fail.

At IUPUI, we talk about these issues a lot. We recognize that poor students often have poor records because they attended substandard schools, and we try to fashion admission standards that allow us to separate academic potential from past performance. We schedule courses so that students with full-time jobs can attend, and we offer a wide variety of support mechanisms for students facing fiscal, emotional and physical challenges. But at the end of the day, we are in the “business” of providing education. We are not a trade school, and we aren’t going to rip off both students and taxpayers by admitting anyone who can qualify for a government loan.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were driving to Costco, and I noticed the number of billboards advertising “colleges” I’d never heard of. They all trumpeted the same message: come to XYZ and get a credential that will get you a good job in less time.

Nocera says we need for-profit colleges, and just need to tweak government regulations to reduce incentives for them to cheat.

I say beware of easy answers to the wrong questions.

The question isn’t: do we need for-profit colleges? The questions (plural) are: how do we define “college education”? How do we provide job skills training to those who cannot benefit from—or don’t want—an academic program?  How do we improve K-12 education so that being poor does not doom children to a second or third rate elementary education that makes it difficult to get into college?

And along the way, can we encourage a decent respect for academic excellence and the life of the mind?


  1. Sheila, if traditional colleges and universities were doing what they so often claim, I think that “for-profit” colleges would have had a much harder time flourishing. And, that stuff about a “deeper appreciation…” has never, ever helped to get me a job. One of the world’s biggest lies perpetuated by university administrators, in my opinion. I understand why you would feel differently, but I just want you to know that there are dissident opinions on this.

    Doug, that clip is much truer than you think. An example, Columbia Pacific University (formerly of California, until the State Attorney General started pursuing them). One simply “forgets” to add “Pacific” to their vitae and then claim “unintentional omission” if called out on it. Voilà!, graduate of doctoral program at “Columbia University”.

    No campus, Ph.ds for “life experience”, degrees for dollars. Still, “graduate” expects to be addressed as “Doctor”.


  2. I was just speaking to Dr. Garcia about this. Frontline and NPR just aired a great segment a few weeks ago regarding For-Profit colleges focusing on veterans so they can cash in on their GI Bill funds. It’s appalling how these schools label themselves as legitimate academic institutions and convince large numbers of people that they can provide them with a quality education.

    My younger brother is a 28 y/o veteran and, to put it delicately, has never been strong academically- but Harrison College (formerly Indiana Business College) managed to recruit him into their business program recently. I wasn’t familiar with IBC or why they had converted to Harrison College and my cursory research on the school didn’t turn up any major red flags so I didn’t think much more about it until this past week.

    My brother’s very first paper was due this week and, since he had been out of school for quite some time, I offered to review it and offer comments and suggestions in order to help him get back into academic writing. It was a 5 page paper on Frederick Taylor and I could only bring myself to edit/comment on the first three pages of it before I had to give up. He had, unfortunately, sent it to me the morning it was due and I realized that there was no way he could rewrite the entire paper within the next few hours, so I emailed it back to him with all the Markups and comments I had added in MS Word along with an email that included a basic outline of how to write a paper and told him (as nicely as I could) that he needed to make sure he got into a writing class soon and that I hoped his professor recognized that he hadn’t taken his required writing classes yet and didn’t INTEND to basically plagiarize an entire paper. In my email I tried to prepare him for what I was sure to be a harsh review of his paper and encouraged him that, with practice and a good writing class, that his writing would only improve.

    Two days later I got a call from him telling me that he received an A on his paper. Needless to say I was mortified at the absolute lack of academic standards of this for-profit school and disheartened that my brother now feels that the level of work that he submitted is “A quality” work. It’s outrageous that for-profit institutions are collecting massive amouts of money and giving their students so little of benefit in return.

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