For Profit Education and the Nature of My Hypocrisy

Thursday, June 17, 2010
I'm a college student. I attend the University of Denver, where I attend my classes online. Some of the classes I take are fabulous, and some have blown big chunks of monkey vomit. Much like a traditional program, actually.

I don't really need the degree for which I'm matriculating. Unless I'm willing to start "coaching" people, I'm pretty much at the top of my profession, and can't really expect additional promotions or salary increases just because I get some more fancy learning. I attend college because I'm one of those incredibly annoying people who sees value in life-long learning, and needs a more structured environment in order to get the most out of my learning experience. I attend the University of Denver because their online program offered interesting course-ware, and their degree plan (required for my company's tuition assistance program) suited my needs.

Well, today I started watching a Frontline report on for-profit colleges while on the Evil Machine of Torture. The report is on the business model associated with for-profit education, and how it affects the students, the professors and the shareholders. I'm not through watching it yet, but it got me to thinking - always a dangerous turn of events. DU, my own school, is a private university. The tuition is very expensive, and I will be earning my degree entirely on line.

And yet, I admit that I have a certain amount of contempt when it comes to for-profit education. When someone tells me they earned their degree from the University of Phoenix (the unchallenged king of for-profit education), I have a tendency to mentally roll my eyes and wonder why that person couldn't get into a real university.

Since I try to live an examined life, I have to wonder - what makes my educational experience so superior to those who attend Phoenix? Why do I believe my own degree will mean more than that earned by someone who also received their degree from an on-line program, and probably spent as much money per course as me?

Admittedly, the quality of learning is directly proportional to the motivation of the student taking the course, and I think this is even more true in on on-line environment. I tend to get a lot out of my on-line classes because I put a lot into them, and that has everything to do with why I'm a student. So why do I assume that a student at a for-profit school is only interested in getting their degree, rather than in the learning?

Janiece, I suspect thy name is Hypocrisy.

I'm quite sure there are students who attend the University of Phoenix that are there only because they want a degree in order to drive their career forward. But you know what? There are students at DU who are the same way. The only difference is that the DU students chose a private university that lacked the stigma of a for-profit institution.  You might argue that the DU students exhibited better judgment in choosing their school, but that's about it in terms of a value judgment.

I'm still on the fence on this, actually. I'm a huge supporter of adult education, and many for-profit schools cater to that demographic. They're filling a need in our society, and I'm happy that people want to be educated and see value in it. And yet...I find the idea of for-profit education somehow repugnant. The act of educating others for the benefit of the shareholder somehow sullies it in my mind. Even if a case can be made that the educational standards in such an institution are not compromised, the fact that the bottom line is about profit rather than standards makes me feel squicky. I think I'll stick with DU...

21 comments:

Stacey said...

As you know, I'm going to Community College of Denver, entirely online, but I did check out UofP and the cost differential was the same per credit hour. I don't know the level of quality differential. I do know that community college has/had the same stigma as UofP - can't you get into a 'real' 4 year university. So, there you go.

許美玉 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Janiece said...

*TONG*

Janiece said...

Stacey, I disagree that there's a stigma associated with community colleges, especially since I know such snobbery isn't justified. Community Colleges graduate the majority of health professionals in this country, and since English 101 is taught to the same standards at CU as at CCD, where's the value in going to a four year school for your general education requirements?

One of the topics covered in the Frontline report was the fact that our community colleges are bursting at the seems - they're literally turning people away for lack of resources to teach them.

mom in northern said...

Community Colleges serve a real need. I see it everday that I am on campus... For many students, no matter their age, it is all they can afford.

Eric said...

So... wait: are you saying that the University Of Denver and Phoenix University (the former ranked 84th by U.S. News and the latter unranked) offer similar qualities of education, similar caliber of faculty, similar caliber of students (the latter has a completely open admissions policy, the former, I presume, is more selective), etc.?

Really?

If not, I think you're inventing a problem for yourself--sure, you're doing it because you believe in the examined life, have a wide egalitarian streak, are modest, and are generally a good person who feels bad when she catches herself feeling better than somebody else. All good things.

But still.

The truth (and you know this) is that some institutions are better than others. Whether or not Phoenix is a "real" university, it's not DU.

It can cut both ways: I went to a law school (Carolina) that's one of the best in the country, but it also isn't Yale. But it would be sort of dishonest for me to pretend that somebody who went to an inferior law school got the same education from the same caliber of profs, surrounded by the same caliber of students, with the same level of associated prestige; it would be just as dishonest as if I pretended that I got the same caliber of education as a Yalie.

I have no idea whether it's possible to get a good education at Phoenix, and I'm sure a lackluster student can get a lousy education at Harvard. Then again, there's a level of accomplishment involved in getting into Harvard that isn't present when one gets into a school that takes everybody, and that may mean something. (It is very possible that there is more to be said about flunking out of Harvard than there is about excelling at University Of Phoenix. Sorry, but there it is.)

The long-and-short of it, Janiece, is that your degree from DU does mean more than a degree from Phoenix, and it isn't hypocrisy to know it. That's no excuse for a swollen head, of course, which I think you're unlikely to get (in part because you're asking the question). But, you know, there's also a danger in not knowing the difference, or pretending not to; a lot of dangers, actually. One is that it fosters anti-intellectualism, particularly the variety that says everybody's opinion is entitled to the same weight. (Hey, clearly Sarah Palin is just as educated as Barack Obama--they're both college graduates, and what's so special about graduating from Columbia and Harvard as opposed to the University Of Idaho, huh?) I don't think you're at risk of that one, actually, but there's another danger I think you could fall prey to....

(c0nt.)

Eric said...

(cont.)

Years ago, Slate's Dahlia Lithwick wrote a great piece on Justice Sandra Day O'Connor that suggested Justice O'Connor's greatest fault as a Justice was:

There's a contradiction implicit in O'Connor's view of herself and her view of others. She is deeply impressed by these extraordinary young women yet unable to accept that she and they are truly unusual. This expectation of extraordinariness—natural, perhaps to one born on a ranch in Arizona and having the heart of a prizefighter—animates her strange hybrid jurisprudence, of infinite compassion in some cases and almost willful intolerance in others. One of the reasons audiences across America lose their hearts to Sandra Day O'Connor is that she seems to have no idea how extraordinary she is. One of the reasons people across America sometimes lose their cases before her is that she has no idea how ordinary the rest of us are.

It's one thing to be humble. It's another thing to let humility blind one to the needs and hopes of others because one fails to appreciate one's own virtues and accomplishments. Vanity is a sin, to be sure. But so is a false equivocation.

Be proud of what you've done with your life, Janiece. The fact is that not everybody could do it.

(Sorry for the length. I'm too lazy to edit meself tonight; I only hope it makes some sorta sense....)

Will (Astra Navigo) said...

Jan, I admire your egalitarianism, but there's something you're missing regarding the for-profit model:

It's the next 'bubble'

For-profit education is a selling-machine, not a teaching-machine. U of Phoenix is only the least-offensive.

Outfits like the Culinary Institute; Anthem College; Heald; and others are reaping HUGE profits from selling overpriced 'education' to students who've signed away their lives (they have no appreciable credit-history, but the government is perfectly willing to view their very lives as collateral for student-loans which can never be bankrupted, no matter what.

These institutions are selling; selling; selling - and when the student, who dreams of being the next Iron Chef can only get a job washing dishes and paying off an overpriced loan, we're allowing an entire generation to be victimized, this time by 'educational institutions' instead of banks and mortgage-companies.

Dr. Phil (Physics) said...

The sad thing is that there is a stigma, amongst some groups, about community colleges. Especially at research universities. There's this myth of this educational pyramid -- the top universities are at the apex and nursery schools are at the bottom. You see it in the funding and salaries in the public sector.

But... when I started teaching -- and I concentrate on TEACHING at the collegiate level -- I've seen how students actually take and pay for classes. Early on I taught two classes at KVCC. It opened my eyes.

Then I joined the Michigan Section of the American Association of Physics Teachers -- and ran into an organization made up of high school, 2-year and 4-year physics teachers. Split pretty evenly. And full of totally committed and awesome people.

Yeah, there's a stigma. But in reality it is always going to be about the people. Yes, I'm saying you can have a sucky class at a Harvard or a Yale. Or a great one. It takes people on both sides of the lectern.

Or the computer screen.

Dr. Phil

Janiece said...

Eric, humility has never really been my strong suit - I know I'm unusually accomplished for someone who doesn't yet have an undergraduate degree. I'm proud of that, even allowing for my unearned privilege. I don't mind being accused of arrogance if it's an area where I feel like I've earned the right to discard false humility - I'm just unsure that my educational accomplishments (such as they are, I mean - I'm a 45 year old undergrad, for Christ's sake) are grounds for it.

I do know intellectually that my DU degree is worth more than a degree from Phoenix. I don't think there's any question of it, for the reasons both you and Will detail. My issue is with individuals. I don't want to allow myself the arrogance of believing I'm personally better than a Phoenix grad because I don't know the quality or motivation behind their education - I can speak only for myself.

And Dr. Phil hit the real issue, of course. In many cases, it's the quality of the professor that makes the difference, and you can find gems and jerks at institutions of every caliber.

P.S. Will, no one calls me "Jan." I'm not offended or anything, but I prefer my full name, which is pronounced "Ja-Neese," the accent on the second syllable.

Anne C. said...

I do think it's important to recognize signs of superiority complex within oneself. Assuming that the kind of school one goes to is an indicator of personal value is, in my opinion, problematic. I had the chance to go to some very prestigious schools, but neither I nor my family had the money to do so. What I figured out later was that quality of education is subjective.
I do have a friend who went to a for-profit school (an aside: those prestigious schools sure charge enough to be for profit!) mainly because it was a bee-line to a profession and he was young and bought their line about helping him find a job.

Incidentally, Janiece, I find it interesting that you bring this up, because I could see the educational elite looking down on a military (non-com) education in much the same way.

Janiece said...

Anne, there's no doubt in my military mind that the "educational elite," as you call them, look down upon my military education. I suspect, however, that such snobbery is usually reserved for those who have no experience in that which they hold in contempt.

And you've addressed my real issue - I think it's fair for me to believe my degree, earned from a top 100 school, is indicative of a better education than one earned from the University of Phoenix. But that doesn't excuse any judgment that I, as an individual, have more value than that UofP graduate by virtue of my DU education.

The Mechanicky Gal said...

So are youse guys going to look down on my Sewing Certificate (yes, there is one! Available at my local Community College.) that I will actively pursue once I have shucked this job?
Huh. Don't come a-cryin' to me when your pants need to be hemmed....

The Mechanicky Gal said...

So are youse guys going to look down on my Sewing Certificate (yes, there is one! Available at my local Community College.) that I will actively pursue once I have shucked this job?
Huh. Don't come a-cryin' to me when your pants need to be hemmed....

Eric said...

But that doesn't excuse any judgment that I, as an individual, have more value than that UofP graduate by virtue of my DU education.

Granted that it's a case by case basis and that you or I might have less value as an individual than a specific UofP graduate, what if you or I in fact do have more value than another UofP grad by virtues of our education?

I understand, I think, where you're trying to get to. But there's all sorts of ways this onion can be cut. Snobbery may be a vice to be avoided, but the bitter truth is that people aren't all the same and some people are better than others, sometimes dependent of context (being a better taxpaying, participating citizen doesn't necessarily make you a better desert-island shipwreck survivor and vice-versa, f'r'instance) and sometimes in general (some folks would be treasures anywhere and at any time while others, tragically, are just terrible human beings on any scale you can imagine).

Y'know, it occurs to me that the problem with snobbery isn't that the snob thinks he's better than other people, a judgment which might well be valid. The problem is that the snob treats others as inferiors, and there's a crucial distinction there. Shakespeare had Polonious say he'd treat a group of actors as they deserved to be treated, to which Hamlet replies he needs to treat them better because if you treated everyone as they deserved, nobody would escape a whipping.

But if one of Polonious' many faults is that he's a snob, one of Hamlet's is that he doesn't know how to deal with what Horatio recognizes: that Hamlet is intellectually and morally superior to nearly everybody in Denmark, and it's at least partly Hamlet's inability to deal with the failings of others while blinding himself to his own virtue that leads to Nearly Everybody dying in the last act.

I guess what I'm getting at, Janiece, is that you're right to be afraid of becoming a snob. But you can accept that you're smarter and wiser than a lot of people and have better experiences than many without being snobby or arrogant. Be humble, but keep humility in perspective, too. Recognize that you are in fact better than other people (and partly, perhaps, because of your education) just as there are others better than you and I, and continue (as I think you have done) to treat others as you'd want to be treated regardless of who they are and where they stand.

Hope that's insightful or something similar....

Janiece said...

Eric, I think I should have qualified my statement to read, "But that doesn't excuse any judgment that I, as an individual, have more value than that UofP graduate solely by virtue of my DU education."

But other than that, I would appreciate it if you would hereby refrain from poking around inside my head. Thank you very much for your cooperation.

Eric said...

Was I poking around inside your head? Sorry--that truly wasn't my intent and I regret that it came off that way.

Janiece said...

Eric, I was being sarcastic - I meant that you were articulating my own thoughts (when I was apparently unable to do so).

Eric said...

ARGH!

I thought I'd been an asshole by accident, or more of one than usual.

I'm having a sort of shitty day. Sorry! :)

David said...

I teach face-to-face at a major state university, although in a part of the system that is roughly analogous to community colleges - we're a freshman/sophomore campus; we grant Associate's Degrees, and many of our students transfer to the four-years from here. I've also taught in the online division of this system. And I've taught for UPhoenix.

The differences between my online experience at State U and my online experience at Phoenix were several.

First, the caliber of student varied far more widely at Phoenix. I had some very good students, people who could have walked through State U (and who might not have had much problem with Ivy League U, my alma mater, either). And I had some students for whom college was clearly not really a good fit. At State U, the band is narrower. And at Ivy U, it is narrower still. The difference between students as you go up the university-reputation scale is where the C's are. A's are A's, but C's are not C's.

Second, Phoenix is VERY rigid. It has to be - it has 300k students, and not coincidentally it has all the flexibility of the Army when it comes to regs. I have much more authority at State U, even in online sections.

I will not teach for Phoenix again. But that said, I have much more respect for Phoenix than I did before I worked there. They are not some fly-by-night operation - they take their mission seriously and do a decent job within the limits of their open enrollment and necessarily rigid structures. They provided me with the most extensive, thoughtful and useful teacher training I have ever received at any level of a career that spans two different graduate schools and three universities taught at. And many of their students are first rate.

As an institution, your degree does mean more from DU than UPhx - among other things, DU is accredited, which I don't believe UPhx is (too many part time instructors). But UPhx degrees do mean something as well.

I'm always impressed by people who can stick with a program and earn a degree, from wherever they earn it.

Janiece said...

David, thanks very much for your insights.

I did finish watching the Frontline show, and one of the biggest issues they highlighted was just what you describe - if your primary concern as a business is growth, then recruitment of new students becomes more problematic each year. Not everyone IS cut out for college. That's not a value judgment - some of the brightest people I know are kinesthetic learners, and the traditional classroom usually isn't a good fit for them. But if you've already enrolled as many students as you can that are a good fit, then where do you go to meet your numbers?

I'll be very interested to see how the proposed "gainful employment" rule affects this sector if it passes. When I wrote this I had no knowledge of the dreadful debt-to-income loads carried by a significant portion of graduates of for-profit schools, but now that I'm aware of it, I think some regulation may be in order.