College Inc.

This week, I watched a documentary titled “College Inc.”  The documentary, produced by PBS in 2010, investigates the rapid growth of the for-profit sector of higher education.  As an aspiring higher education professional, I find the development of the for-profit industry troublesome.  Primarily, I worry that attempting to derive profit from college students may compromise the value of the education they receive.  The facts contained in the documentary are startling.  According to the documentary, 10% of college students attend for-profit campuses and online classes.  The University of Phoenix alone enrolls 500,000 students, a number greater than the matriculate of the University of California and the Ivy League universities combined.  Why do students turn to for-profit companies for education?  Several reasons play a role in the popularity of these institutions.

Historically, for-profits cater to the needs of their customers.  For example, the University of Phoenix places campuses along major freeways approximately 20 minutes apart from one another.  The reason: to provide convenient access to students even during rush hours.  Further, for-profits embrace online and distance learning.  This mode of instruction allows non-traditional students to attend class from the comfort of their home at any hour of the day.  In essence, for-profits invite change as a means of making the process of obtaining a degree easier for their students.  In the future, for-profits may develop curriculum that allows students to attend class via mobile devices such as cellphones and tablet PCs.  Overall, for-profits continue to drive innovation in education in order to make the educational process easier and more accessible to a greater number of students.

In order to increase enrollment, for-profit universities target prospective students through aggressive marketing.  According to a former University of Phoenix executive, for-profit institutions spend between 20-25% of revenue on marketing and sales.  This money funds television, print and online advertisements.  Also, for-profits employ legions of admissions staff who pursue potential students through job fairs and telephone communications.  Moreover, this documentary investigated the possible use of “high pressure” sales tactics and misleading promises by admissions staff which may contribute to increased enrollment.  Regardless of the possible use of unethical sales procedures, the fact remains that for-profit institutions reach out to the public through high-visible advertisement campaigns.

In addition to the increasing popularity of for-profit institutes, several other implications regarding the explosive growth of for-profit education companies surfaced in the documentary including the use of federal financial aid, the ability of students to repay student loans, the rate of graduation and the employment rate of for-profit graduates.  Also, I question the costs and benefits of eliminating tenure as many for-profits have done.  Given the undeniable growth of for-profit colleges, several questions remain unanswered.  Are students receiving a quality education?  How do we evaluate the efficacy of education provided by for-profits?  Should government exercise greater oversight to prevent companies from taking advantage of students?  I invite anyone interested in this topic to view this documentary.  I have included the link at the bottom of this entry.  I believe that all current and future higher education professionals should be aware of this development in the education environment of America.




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