A Competitive Market in Higher Education?

By July 12, 2005

Today’s New York Times contains a fascinating story regarding the growth of for-profit “career schools.” It begins:

The fastest-growing segment of higher education in New York State is not the immense public universities, the State University of New York and the City University of New York, nor the well-known private campuses like Columbia and New York University, but a raft of lesser-known commercial institutions often advertised on city subways.

From 1999 to 2004, a period when colleges and universities in New York grew by less than 15 percent, enrollment at degree-granting profit-making schools jumped 46 percent, to more than 44,000. And some enrollments soared. They jumped 265 percent at the Interboro Institute and 180 percent at the Rochester Business Institute.

In fact, commercial schools have been booming nationwide, driven by the rise of education conglomerates, the growth in education via the Internet and a ready market of struggling students who had not been sought out by traditional institutions. Nationally, enrollment at commercial degree-granting schools grew 147 percent between 1995 and 2002, the most recent numbers available, to nearly 600,000 students.

Already, these for-profit schools represent a viable alternative for many students who see the university primarily as a vehicle for career advancement. Since (truth be told) most students go to college not to learn the nuances of political theory or the joys of Chaucer but instead to improve their economic position, it is not difficult to imagine a day when for-profit colleges—which put job placement at the center of their mission—will present a major challenge to traditional government and nonprofit private schools. As colleges become increasingly politicized (some are so ideologically slanted that students are essentially joining revolutionary cells rather than academic departments), the for-profit schools may be seen as a haven from the culture wars.

There are, however, complaints regarding the quality of the for-profit educational experience. As the Times states:

Federal and state investigators have found that some used inappropriate enrollment practices, like registering students incapable of doing the work. Some critics also charge that the schools make rosy promises about jobs for their graduates that do not materialize.

In recent audits, the New York State comptroller’s office found more problems with commercial schools than at other schools. In audits of four degree-granting schools in the past year, the comptroller found that irregularities in financial aid grants were more than eight times higher at the two commercial schools studied than at the public college and the private nonprofit college that it also reviewed.

Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, said in written testimony to a Congressional hearing in March that at one point she had accumulated a two-foot stack of complaints about the schools. She said that while not all schools were bad, enough were to warrant "even more protection from the false sales pitches of many of these for-profit trade schools.

Additionally, for-profit schools are not necessarily havens of free expression and debate. They tend to make no promises regarding free speech and often, in fact, expressly state that they do not protect traditional academic freedom. The schools are expressly in the business of education and are not organized for the public charitable purpose of, say, Harvard.

The for-profit model is only one way to introduce competitive pressures into higher education. Another is through the spread of more complete information—which brings me directly to FIRE and our developing database of speech codes, cases, and comments at America’s leading colleges. At FIRE, we intend to directly impact the process of choosing the right college; so that students and parents deciding on, for example, Bucknell or Colgate will consider that college’s respect for basic civil liberties just as they consider its rank in U.S. News & World Report or the breadth of its academic programs. Truthful information can incentivize change. Speech codes will become increasingly rare as admissions and development officers are forced to justify or rationalize restrictions on basic civil liberties. Individual abuses will be less frequent as administrators realize that abuses are likely to create an enduring and easily accessible record of oppression.

In ten years, it is entirely possible that the landscape of American higher education will be profoundly changed. And FIRE will be there to make sure that the changes are in favor of individual liberty and against the selective repression and censorship that so dominate academia today.