The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in answer to the single question: how much money will it bring in?...  ...Alexis de Tocqueville (June 9, 1831).
Commentary of the Day - Jan. 28, 2000: Dirty Little Secrets of the "University" of Phoenix and Other "For Profit" Education Vendors:
To celebrate the start of the new semester here at Krispy Kreme U, us faculty types were invited to yet another Academic Affairs Forum.  These all-day affairs sponsored by our Vice President for Academic Affairs and our Faculty Development Center have varied in content over the years.  Recently, they seem to have focussed on ways to get us to change our ways.  Namely, to become more involved in new ways of teaching, or as the education folks like to say "new ways to facilitate learning".  Just in case you didn't know, Krispy Kreme U is the place where learning is preeminent.  These events in recent semesters naturally have tended to emphasize the use of the latest "hot" technologies in teaching.

This semester the forum was on "The Fate of the Traditional Classroom - Confronting the Realities of For-Profit Education and Degrees Earned Online".  One of the features of these Academic Affairs Forums is that substantial amounts of money are spent on bringing in outside experts (hired guns) to tell us what we need to hear.  This year four gurus of "for profit" education were brought in to tell us why we needed to be more like their "education" enterprises.  They included Dr. Robert Tucker, president of InterEd, Inc. and formerly a vice-president with the University of Phoenix; Dr. Andy DiPaolo, Executive Director of the Stanford Center for Professional Development; Dr. Denzil Edge, who administers distance education programs for the University of Louisville and for the Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual University; and Dr. Douglas Durand, Dean of the School of Business Administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Much has been written about the pros and cons of technology-driven distance education programs.  The Irascible Professor's intent in this commentary is not to add to that debate, but rather to focus on the "for profit" education sector.  In this respect, the keynote address by Dr. Tucker was quite illuminating.  It's no secret that "for profits" are in business to make money.  What was revealing in Tucker's talk was how they maximize their profits.  Those techniques have serious implications for all segments of the higher education enterprise.  They include:

  • Offering only "high-need" "high-value (high profit)" courses.
  • A heavy emphasis on "student satisfaction".
  • "Short fill" packaging of courses.
  • Using only "adjunct" or part-time faculty.
  • Imposing strict limitations on faculty independence through "top-down" management of the teaching process.
  • Offloading "high-cost" instruction and research to the non-profit sector.

Outfits like the "University" of Phoenix are universities in name only.  They maximize profit by severely limiting their course offerings to those areas in which demand is high and the cost of instruction in low.  In the words of Dr. Tucker, they try to "pick the low-hanging fruit".  For example, the "University" of Phoenix offers undergraduate degrees in only four areas; business, human services, information technology,  and nursing.  Likewise they offer Masters Degrees only in business, education, counseling, information technology, and nursing.  The pinnacle of the "University" of Phoenix offerings is the "Doctor of Management" in "organizational leadership".  The IP has to admit that he had never heard of that degree before he visited the "University" of Phoenix website.  In addition, the "for profits" offer a wide variety of certificate programs intended to help working adults increase their job skills.

What you won't find at the "for profits" are many courses in literature, the arts, laboratory sciences, etc.  Most of the "for profits" expect that their degree candidates will have taken these courses elsewhere.  There are no departments of art, music, history, philosophy, biology, chemistry, or physics at these edustores.

The "for profits" place a heavy emphasis on "student satisfaction".  Their courses generally provide students with just enough new information to allow them to keep up with their jobs.  They are not too easy, otherwise the students would complain that they are not getting their money's worth.  But, they are not too hard either.  After all if too many students flunked, they would not come back for more.  Keeping the student coming back for more is an important factor in profit maximization.

Generally, courses at the "for profits" are short in duration - typically five weeks or less; and, they transfer information to the student in the small "chunks" that match well the learning styles of the video generation.  This is another way in which profit is maximized.  The student may have to pay for two or three courses to acquire the same amount of information that he or she would get in a single course at one of the non-profits.  The "short-fill" technique, of course, is not new.  Adjusting the size of the package has been used for decades by candy and cereal makers to maximize profit.

The use of "adjunct" and part-time faculty by the "for profits" is another technique that helps maximize profit.  The "for profits" have no permanent faculties.  Essentially all courses are taught by part-time faculty who are paid at very low rates.  For example, the typical part-timer teaching at a "for profit" will be paid about $2,000 for a three unit course.  Teaching, whether face-to-face or over the Internet, is a labor intensive activity.  The "for profits" depend on cheap labor to keep costs low.  At present, most of these instructors are drawn from the ranks of the already employed.  They are folks who want to make a few extra bucks by teaching a course or two.  Clearly, at the rate of pay offered one could not make a living teaching full time at one of these "for profits".  In the apparel industry the cost of labor is minimized by moving production offshore.  As the "for profits" shift to more and more online teaching, it would not surprise the Irascible Professor to see that most of the courses are taught by offshore faculty in countries such as India and the Philippines where English skills are passable and wages are low.

The concept of academic freedom and shared governance is absent from the "for profits".  Faculty members do not design their own courses in any meaningful way.  Instead, they must use very detailed course syllabi and "learning packages" that are designed to ensure that basically the same information is transferred to the student in a given course regardless of who happens to be the instructor.  This element of quality control helps to ensure the consistency of the product, which helps to maximize profit.  It is much like quality control in the fast food industry.  You never get a great meal at a McDonald's, but you know exactly what you are going to get whether you're at a McDonald's in Pittsburgh, PA or one in Paris, France.

Because there are no permanent faculty members in the "for profit" sector, there are no faculty unions or faculty senates to deal with.  Faculty simply are told what to teach and how to teach it. That makes life remarkably simple for management.  Most top administrators at real universities and colleges would give their eye teeth to be free of the delays and petty politics associated with collegial governance.  However, there is a cost to this freedom from faculty interference, and that is the lack of faculty input to curriculum and program development.  Instead, curriculum and programs are designed by "learning experts" who know all the "best (and most profitable) practices".  Seldom, if ever, is their work vetted by the faculty members who actually do the teaching.

The "for profits" further maximize profit by offloading all research activities and most high-cost instruction to the non-profit sector.  For example, the "University" of Phoenix offers essentially no laboratory classes.  Students who need background in these areas must take those classes elsewhere.  Likewise, the "University" of Phoenix encourages its degree seekers to transfer in as many general education units as they can.

Proponents of the "for profits" such as Tucker argue for a complete separation of the teaching and research functions of higher education.  Since research is expensive and would cut into the bottom line severely, the "for profits" have eliminated the research function almost entirely.  For example, students in the "Doctor of Management" program at the "University" of Phoenix are expected to have a membership in a research library.  It doesn't matter which research library, but it can't be the "University" of Phoenix research library because they don't have one!

This offloading of high cost functions to the non-profit sector reminds the IP of what is happening in medicine today.  The "for profits" are much like the cosmetic surgeons who run their own outpatient surgery clinics.  These people skim the easy, high-profit cases from the system while leaving the difficult and costly cases to other sectors of the health care system.

The growth of the "for profits" has serious implications for higher education in general.  As more and more of the low-cost, high-profit programs are taken over by the "for profits", the non-profits will find it more and more difficult to maintain the essential, but high-cost programs of the traditional university.  Low enrollment, but valuable, majors are likely to disappear from all but the wealthiest, elite institutions.  Likewise, there is likely to be less money available for scholarship and research.  The long term effect of this on society could well be very damaging.

In the view of the IP the long term survival of the traditional universities is at stake.  Tucker suggested that the non-profits should adopt the tactics of the "for profits" to survive.  If this is done, however, there soon will be little difference between the "for profits" and the non-profits.  Instead, it would make more sense for the non-profits to do a better job addressing those satisfaction issues that students find so irritating.  Cumbersome registration procedures, arcane financial aid forms, high prices and poor service at campus bookstores and other facilities need to be addressed.  Most of all, the non-profits need to differentiate themselves sharply from the "for-profits", and promote their strengths aggressively.  The major strength of the non-profits is that they educate their students for a lifetime of jobs, rather than training them for their first job.  At the same time the non-profits need to do a better job equipping their graduates with basic job skills.  Finally, the non-profits need to promote their superior brand of education aggressively.  The "for profits" have succeeded not because they offer a superior product, but because they have marketed a mediocre product with great skill.  (In fact, a number of the "for profits" have aligned themselves with non-profits  in order to take advantage of the more easily recognized "brand-name" institutions.)  The non-profits have a much better product to sell - namely a genuine education; but, they have marketed this product poorly or not at all.


The Irascible Professor invites your comments.
©2000 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.