By Dr. Laura Palmer Noone, CEO, University of the Potomac

For many years I have been fortunate enough to be asked to lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in their summer institute.  The MLE program is an intense two-week long experience for senior administrators at educational institutions across the globe.  Topics range from finance to governance and focus on development of future college presidents. The participants are always extremely intelligent, engaged, well prepared, and not surprisingly, opinionated.  The 2012 session was no exception.

My session is entitled “New Institutions with New Missions” and focuses on the role of for-profit institutions in the higher education landscape of the US.  I am told it is always one of the most controversial, yet thought provoking sessions.  I don’t view that as any validation that I am a great instructor.  Rather I attribute that to the fact that for-profit higher education is a lightening-rod topic.

There are several key points in my presentation that have remained unchanged over the years– my own version of myth busting:

  1. For-profit institutions are not a new phenomenon.  Many people have only begun to notice for-profit schools in the last few decades and assume that this is a new trend.  In fact, there have been for profit institutions in the US for decades.  The first were secretarial schools.  These institutions met a need when traditional institutions did not allow women to enroll.
  2. Not all forprofits are alike.  When the phrase for-profit education is mentioned, most people’s minds jump to the well known players in the industry – University of Phoenix, DeVry, Strayer, The Art Institutes, etc.  All of these institutions are also part of large organizations that are publicly traded companies.  Yet the vast majority of for-profit institutions are not large, nor are they on any stock exchange.  There are hundreds of small, privately held institutions serving the needs of students with a devotion to a quality academic experience.
  3. For-profit institutions are not stealing your students.  Invariably, a few members of the class will admit the reason they don’t like for-profit institutions is that they are “stealing our students.”  Really?  A couple of points can be made  – first, what made them “your” students?  Are you saying that some unscrupulous recruiter came onto your campus and physically took the students away, kicking and screaming?  Probably not.  So then it must be that the student transferred or the prospective student was a member of that institution’s target demographic.  Deeper analysis would lend most everyone to understand that if a student transferred, it is probably because the original institution didn’t meet his or her needs.  If the student comes from the same target demographic, well it appears they weren’t YOUR student after all.  They made a choice and it was to attend another school.
  4. Making a profit isn’t a bad thing.  Education as an industry must be the last hold out to believe that making a profit is a bad thing.  Take for instance the hospital industry.  If you are sick – you probably choose the hospital based on any number of factors – where your doctor has privileges, the closest to your home, the hospital’s reputation for the type of injury or disease, etc.  But I have never heard anyone say they chose one hospital over the other because it was a not-for-profit and the other was for-profit.  So what makes education so different?  (That is somewhat a rhetorical question, but if you have the answer, I would love to hear it!)  To my way of thinking, an institution has to take in at least as much money as it spends.  The difference between a for-profit and a not-for-profit is what happens to the money left over.  A for-profit institution pays taxes.  My colleagues at not-for-profit institutions have shared that if the department has money left over at the end of the year, there is a mad dash to “use it or lose it.’  Not that I am fond of paying taxes, but it at least seems a bit more intellectually honest than just spending money to preserve your allocation for the next year.  And what about those institutions that don’t generate enough revenue to cover expenses? Oh, yes, my taxes again.   While state subsidies are lower than in years past, community colleges and state universities still receive a portion of their funding from taxes.  You may not be for-profit, but you can’t be for-loss for long.
  5. Pandering to students is neither cultivated nor encouraged at reputable for-profit institutions. Most for-profit institutions try to emphasize good customer service, but that does not equate to “the customer is always right.”  It does mean that a student is entitled to a timely, accurate and courteous response to their question.  Yet many of my more traditional colleagues labor under the misperception that treating students as though they are intelligent consumers, capable of making informed decisions is pandering.  I disagree.
  6.  For-profit institutions have accreditation as an indicator of quality.  There is a pervasive myth that for-profit institutions lack quality and academic rigor.  This is one of the most perplexing of the misconceptions.  Of course institutions vary in their level of rigor, but that is true among traditional institutions.  Few would argue that a community college’s rigor is different than that of a highly selective private institution.  But as a sector, we rely on accreditation as an indicator of quality.  Very few states allow institutions to operate for any extended period of time without accreditation.  The process of accreditation review is expressly designed to determine that an institution has met baseline standards of academic and operational quality.  Several for-profits, like University of the Potomac, are regionally accredited.  Regional accreditation is the same type of institutional accreditation held by the most prestigious institutions in the US.  Same standards, same review cycle, same expectations.

I am not certain I ever manage any converts at these sessions but I always hope to shed some new light on those old myths.  Start with the facts and then analyze your beliefs against those facts.  After all, isn’t the purpose of education to learn?