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(Witch)Hunting For-Profit Universities

Posted on November 23rd, 2011, by 2 Comments

I am shocked by the new GAO report on for-profit universities. I am shocked not because they found bad behavior (not that hard to find in any sector of higher ed), but that this study was conducted by an arm of the government. The big problems fall into two categories.

First, the GAO looked into the type of activities (grading of students, plagiarism policies) at for-profits that would have justifiably elicited cries of bloody murder had they done the same thing at public or non-profit universities. Going off Paul Fain’s story

Investigators began by scrutinizing the enrollment process, with students attempting to enroll with bogus high school diplomas. Only three were denied entry.

My glib point: Guess who else admits students with fake credentials? Harvard.

My more serious point: It has long been the policy of government that enrollment decisions were one of three or four key decisions to be left to universities without government interference other than to enforce anti-discrimination laws (two others are curriculum and faculty employment and promotion decisions). If it is now an accepted role of the government to determine enrollment procedures for colleges, I recommend we transition to lottery acceptance for Ivy league colleges, just like we do for many oversubscribed charter schools.

The article continues:

Once admitted, the GAO students tested instructors by intentionally performing poorly in classes…

The GAO students often plagiarized material for assignments, and instructors at two colleges took no action to remove students after catching instances of plagiarism…

So the government is now involved in assessing the quality of evaluation and grading as well as determining the acceptability of procedures for dealing with plagiarism. I don’t care how poorly students are evaluated, how unfair grading is, or what the policy on plagiarism is any classroom in the country – without an actual law being broken there is absolutely no excuse for the government to get involved in any of it. There isn’t a professor in the country, regardless of whether they teach at a public, non-profit or for-profit, that wouldn’t be outraged by the government dictating how we are to punish plagiarism.

My second big problem is that this whole series of investigations is looking more and more like a witch-hunt. The public arguably does have in interest in knowing what goes on in colleges. But the exclusive focus on for-profits is proof that this is not the goal of these investigations. The main purpose appears to be to slander the entire sector with guilt by association with the misbehaving colleges among them. Keep these words in mind:

where institutions abuse their public trust, correction ought to be aimed at the institution that has abused that trust rather than at the rest of us through another general wide-ranging regulation.

That’s not a quote from some for-profit PR hack, but rather from the President of St. John’s College.

  • Glen S. McGhee, FHEAP

    As the steady stream of top-notch reports and studies accumulates at this website, points of disagreement begin to emerge.

    As recent events unfold around us, and problems become glaringly apparent, it is perhaps appropriate to take a second look while attempting to remain in the present conversation.

    To begin, it is important to note that St. John’s president has nothing to complain about. All he has to do is follow the lead of Hillsdale College, and refuse all federal subsidies, all federal student loan guarantees, all state and federal financial aid and grants, and turn away the accrediting visitors at the gate.

    Instantly, all that he finds objectionable vanishes — but, granted, then replaced by financial difficulties that would prove insurmountable for the college. The point I am making is that, as an institution, certain decisions are made, and accepting gifts from state and federal government involves meeting certain requirements. To continue to complain about this, I think, reflects poorly on him.

    St. John’s has made some poor choices in the past. One of them was associating itself with an accrediting agency that was an accreditor in name only, and failed so miserably at accrediting that it withdrew itself as an agency rather than become one that the Secretary of Education could recognize. The scale at which St. John’s former accreditor failed to meet statutory requirements was epic, and the school’s past apathy about accreditation is perhaps what has resulted in its recent rude awakening.

    The school is one of a dying breed of liberal arts colleges, where the value of its education rests mainly in its exchange value — that is, the capacity it confers on its graduates to gain entrance into a graduate program or a professional program of study, such as law school.

    As I understand it, the curriculum of St. Johns College is organized around the tradition of Great Ideas, and this is currently under pressure from the push for more STEM graduates. Liberal arts programs have a long history, it is true, but these roots have more to do with affirming the class status of entering students, as can seen in the etymological links between “liberal” and “gentleman.” These links are not merely semantic, however, but reflect far more fundamental problems as well.

    I know a bright young woman that recently attended the New Mexico branch of St. John’s College, and experienced all this first hand. Especially troublesome was the semester-end meeting with instructors regarding her progress, which, from what I heard, resembled academic bullying. She never went back, and her initial enthusiasm for Great Ideas has vanished.

    If, as we are told, the federal government has $1 trillion dollars in higher education, it goes without saying that there is a federal interest in higher education. To obdurately ignore this federal interest is to invite the wrath and rage of the generations to come that will have to pay for it through taxes on their labor and their investments. The problem is how to act as a good steward in regard to this federal interest, and how to protect it. This was what the 1992 amendments to the Higher Education Act, which implemented the gatekeeping triad, were intended to do.

    The problem is that is has failed miserably, and needs to be drastically overhauled.

    Take the problem of online education, and predatory practices of for-profit corporations. I worked for SLM on student loans for two seasons, and you would be appalled by the practices of some of these for-profits (using probation officers and homeless shelter directors as personal references for Stafford loans, pushing useless degree programs, very expensive tuition, enormous levels of student debt burden, disproportionate recruitment of minorities, all online — including health care programs) — because for-profits are providing accessibility, they get a shot at the cookie jar sitting on the taxpayers’ kitchen table. This is a big mistake, of course. And we will be paying for it for years to come.

    During the second year of working at SLM, I noticed a significant jump in the volume of loan applicants for online courses, at about the time the GAO began its investigations. Apparently, problems uncovered earlier remain unresolved. In my view, the sloppiness of the first investigation has been overemphasized, and the mistakes made were not significant — they did not take away from the problems uncovered — and the subsequent uproar was orchestrated to detract from this.

    But the fact remains, the regimen of QC/QA self-regulation in higher education is deeply flawed. There are, in fact, no real controls on quality at all. In my experience over the years with accreditation in the south, accreditation amounts to self-serving window dressing, and nothing more. The tragedy is that this applies to public schools as well as for profits, online as well as face-to-face classes.

    At the heart of the problem, I think, are the contradictory missions assigned the Department of Education in 1979 — monitoring educational quality, and at the same time providing accessibility. These foci conflict with each other in fundamental ways, and the later predisposes the department to what is called agency capture, where the regulator becomes an advocate for the regulated, instead of exercising necessary oversight.

    The only reason the GAO report can be called a witch-hunt is that it is not yet started investigating public collleges and universities, on-line and off-line.

    Not all witch-hunts are bad.

    Random investigations are not fair, of course, but the fear that they send through the sector is salutary — it is also an efficient use of limited resources. The threat of falling victim to a witch hunt can also be very effective for controlling institutional behavior.

  • Molly

    The description given by the commenter above of “academic bullying” at St. John’s College, based on the report of a young woman whose enthusiasm for Great Ideas is reported to have vanished as a result, is misleading.

    I graduated from St. John’s in Annapolis. My husband graduated from St. John’s in Santa Fe. Our son graduated from St. John’s in Annapolis. The president of St. John’s quoted above is also a St. John’s graduate. We all managed to hang onto our enthusiasm for the Great Books and for “Great Ideas” despite having undergone what this young woman underwent–twice-yearly don rags at which our faculty members–tutors–reported to our seminar leaders on our academic progress, as we sat and listened. When the tutors were finished, it was our turn to speak.

    These don rags are modeled after those at Oxford and Cambridge, which have been–as it happens–highly successful educational institutions for centuries. Many are those who have survived Oxbridge don rags. And many are those who have survived, and profited from, St. John’s don rags.

    I don’t know what the previous commenter meants about St. John’s “poor decisions” in the past–but I must say that in my experience, which involves relatives going to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Vassar–including a son at Yale–in my experience, the St. John’s education–with four years of mathematical study, three years of science laboratory (physics, chemistry, biology), a year of music theory, two years of Attic Greek, two years of French, and four years of reading and discussing the Great Books–and even translating them–the St. John’s education is superior to most of what is offered in the Ivies, and is infinitely superior to the vision to which the Federal government’s educational bureaucracy seems devoted.

    No, the mission of St. John’s is not to get its graduates into graduate school. The mission of St. John’s is to initiate its students into a life of participation in that unending seminar, that free and reasoned discussion, across the centuries, that enables them to encounter Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Descartes and Newton, in their real thoughts and their own words, rather than in some homogenized “survey course” variant taught by a bored TA.