Does For-Profit Equal Anti-Rights?

By October 3, 2005

The front page of last Friday’s Wall Street Journal featured an article (subscription required) about the rise of for-profit colleges and universities and the controversy over a pending law in Congress that would make it more difficult for traditional colleges and universities to reject credits from students who attend those universities.

FIRE doesn’t have a position for or against for-profit colleges, although many people have strong opinions either way on whether the rise of for-profit schools is bad or good. However, as more and more students are attending these institutions, FIRE has been getting more cases from them, and so far the news hasn’t been so good for student liberty. What we have found is that, at least at the for-profit institutions with which we have dealt, guarantees of fundamental rights or of academic freedom are few and far between.

For example, at one brick-and-mortar for-profit institution, a student was hounded out of the university for raising complaints of ethnic discrimination against certain faculty members, as well as against what the student saw as unfair policies, lack of due process, and poor resources at the student’s campus. FIRE attempted to help the student, but was frustrated by the fact that the school did not in fact guarantee very much about its resources or the fairness of its procedures. The university’s board, to whom the student tried to appeal to when the administration failed to act fairly, turned out to be the immediate family members of the university president. Message to students: the first rule about this university is you don’t talk about this university.

Students might want to be careful about their e-mails, too. FIRE has had several cases submitted from students of some of the largest online colleges in America who complained about the college, the professors, or the resources and attention available to them. The typical tactic in these cases has been for the college to simply cut off the student’s access to the college’s website. At an online university, of course, this is nothing less than immediate and summary expulsion without any hearing—a punishment so blatantly unfair that is rare even at the most oppressive traditional school. When FIRE investigated to see if these colleges had any policies permitting freedom of expression, we found nothing.

This is not to say that all online or for-profit colleges are this way. The vast majority of FIRE’s cases come from normal, nonprofit universities, who haven’t exactly racked up a brilliant record of supporting liberty. But as it stands right now, students considering a for-profit college should either find out ahead of time about the college’s policy on fundamental freedoms, or be very careful how they think and act while attending these institutions.