What's An University For? A View from For-Profit Corner

The issues surrounding For-Profit institutions have been contested around whether allowing For-Profits inevitably means profiteering, and given the prospect of students taking loans to go to For-Profit institutions, profiteering at the taxpayers’ expense. On the other hand, For-Profit institutions argued their case as the ones driving educational innovations in cost and delivery, challenging the status quo in Higher Education, which has, they claimed, failed to change with time.

These battles over entitlements, however, should be seen in the context of a broader debate about what the universities are for.

Collini (2012) defines the ‘modern university’ with the following four characteristics:
“1. That it provides some form of Post-secondary-school education, where education signals something more than professional training.
2. That it furthers some form of advanced scholarship or research whose character is not wholly dictated by the need to solve the immediate practical problems.
3. That these activities are pursued in more than just one single discipline or very tightly defined cluster of disciplines.
4. That it enjoys some form of institutional autonomy as far as its intellectual activities are concerned.”

If this definition is accepted, and these characteristics fall in the broad tradition of what universities were meant to be in the Western world, For-Profit Higher Education would stand in rather stark contrast. First, while For-Profit institutions offer post-secondary education, the focus is often skills and professions, and they tend to tread on the fine line between ‘training’ and ‘education’ (which Collini defines as the ‘surplus’ over the knowledge that is immediately applicable).

Second, the focus in For-Profit institutions is hardly on research: Quentin Hanley, of Nottingham Trent University, studied the research output of For-Profit universities:
He found that since 1993 the University of Phoenix has produced fewer than 200 papers, which have garnered about 700 citations. The university is reported to have more than 300,000 undergraduates and over 60,000 postgraduates.

Dr Hanley said other major for-profits had similarly slight research records. He found fewer than 100 papers with just over 500 citations from Kaplan University, and just over 200 papers and some 1,000 citations from Argosy University.

"Their impact is on a par with a single medium academic at an approximately mid-ranked UK university," he said. "Calling an organisation with no meaningful scholarship a university is a bit like calling a muddy path through a forest a motorway."
(Jump, 2012)

Third, most For-Profits are focused on one or two areas, rather than offering a broad range of disciplines. In fact, offering a tightly integrated curriculum is at the core of ‘cost efficiencies’ For-Profit institutions take pride in. Often, this is done with financial considerations, in order not to spread financial resources too thinly across several areas of scholarship.

Fourth, in For-Profits, the intellectual activities are often seen as a ‘delivery function’, an integrated area of business activity, which needs to move in sync with the overall business strategy of the organisation. While the business managers seldom interfere with the academic arguments inside the classroom, allowing ‘autonomy’ in a limited, political, sense, the For-Profit institutions often obsessively gather data about delivery and student performance. The faculty often work with stringent financial targets, and though the Public universities are no stranger to budgeting, profit focus and incentive structures put the cost efficiencies at the heart of the academic enterprise. [One For-Profit proprietor explained to the author that she did not believe in budgeting because this allowed people to spend the allocated sum of money; it made sense, she contended, to always focus on how to get things done in the most ‘cost-efficient’ manner. ]

However, one could contend that Collini’s definition above is based on a certain view of the university, conceived inside the same institutions it is attempting to define. Besides, this seems to have, at its heart, a sort of teleological reasoning, that the universities are meant to be something and everything needs to fit that form, rather than seeing it as a social institution designed to serve a social end. To be fair to Collini, he is one scholar who would be first to debunk the 'university myth', that these are timeless institutions operating in a certain way all through history, and he states very clearly that the universities have always served social purposes. However, there is insufficient understanding of this from within the public universities, particularly in the UK, presumably because the nature of the university communities, which are 'of the academics, by the academics, for the academics'. One would therefore think the idea of an university needs an update, not just to bring it in line with twenty-first century, but also to bring it in line with our pluralist societies, where we no longer talk about fitting individuals to the purpose of social institutions, but the institutions serving a framework to enable individual freedom, to realise their full potential.

The For-Profit case is usually rested on this 'enabling' assumption. For-Profit institutions often contend that they do a better job at teaching students:

“the pedagogy used by the new generation of private-sector colleges is sound and proven – and in some cases they may do a better job of educating students than traditional institutions. Traditional colleges are more likely to know how many students attended last night’s basketball game than how many attended this mornings economics lecture. They know how much their alumni donated but often not what jobs they acquired after graduation. Too often, traditional colleges measure inputs, not outputs. Many of them could learn much from private-sector colleges, which are doing the most innovative work to use technology, pedagogy, and measurement systems to make sure students are really learning, and to build virtuous cycles that will continue to improve the quality of learning outcomes for many years to come.” (Rosen, 2011)

The For-Profit advocates also contend that they should be seen as teaching intensive institutions. While a romantic ideal of an university as a place where research and teaching comes together is often invoked (most famously, in Clark Kerr’s idea of a multiversity), universities are diverse and have always been: Collini (2012) explains that the Oxbridge ideals were quite different from Scottish, more vocationally focused, universities, which were in turn different from the traditional, city-based universities such as Manchester and London, and the later Civic universities were set up with a different goal and a different class of students in mind. The modern German university, the forerunner of the modern research university, presented a different model. For-Profit advocates such as Rosen (2011) mentions ‘Harvard Envy’ (alternately labeled as Carnegie Creep, with reference to Carnegie Foundation’s classification of Higher Education institutions) as the incessant drive of traditional institutions to become bigger and better, driving up the cost structures and causing an over-reach that its students do not desire or demand. This, it can be argued, come from a rather fixed idea of a modern university, which Clark Kerr himself, in designing the multi-tiered Californian Higher Education system, sought to break. As for the comments about research output, a Senior Executive of an UK For-Profit college told me that an average academic paper gets ‘zero citation’, so the volume of research isn’t worth fighting about.

Regarding the lack of ‘breadth’ of discipline, which is evident even from a cursory survey of For-Profit institution websites, the For-Profit providers cite the trouble traditional universities have in filling their classes. In fact, this is precisely seen as a reason for cost disease in For-Profit circles and a competitive opportunity. For-Profit students, often coming from a less privileged background than those going to traditional colleges, are quite happy to focus on the limited subject choices offered to them. Besides, most For-Profit students tend to work part time and didn’t spend much time outside their class hours at their campuses, ruling out the possibilities of serendipitous learning that a multi-disciplinary university offers.

Finally, despite the differing approaches of For-Profit and Traditional institutions towards budgeting, their approaches to intellectual autonomy are quite alike: It does often get subjected to business decision-making. Discontinuing courses for business reasons, restructuring operations and impact analysis of research activities are all too common in traditional institutions.  Business involvement in successful universities has indeed changed the research focus and activities: Gerhard Casper, a Senior Teaching Fellow at Stanford, worries that “I am concerned that a research-intense university will become too result-oriented” (quoted in Auletta, 2012).

Ruch (2001) describes Allen Ginsberg, the beat poet, characterising American universities ‘as giant warehouses designed to occupy the time of young people that society did not know what else to do with’. Similarly, in an anthropological study of university life, Rebekah Nathan (not her real name), delves into ‘liminal’ nature of college life, a transient state between childhood and adulthood, which is ‘at once an affirmation and preparation for the world and a creative response and innovative challenge to the same world’. (Nathan, 2005, pp 146 – 148). While this appears similar to Collini’s (2012) conception of the university as a protected space, where, presumably, the students can pursue ‘education’, (Howard Gardner defines the objective of education as ‘truth, beauty and morality’) the ‘liminal’ concept of the university is fundamental to the For-Profits. The idea that the university is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, forms the core of the debate that is being explored here. Auletta (2012) writes in New Yorker:

“The United States has “two types of college education that are in conflict with each other,” (Casper) said. One is “the classic liberal-arts model—four years of relative tranquility in which students are free to roam through disciplines, great thoughts, and great works with endless options and not much of a rationale.” The second is more utilitarian: “A college degree is expected to lead to a job, or at least to admission to a graduate or professional school.” The best colleges divide the first two years into introductory courses and the last two into the study of a major, all the while trying to expose students to “a broad range of disciplines and modes of thought.” Students, he declared, are not broadly educated, not sufficiently challenged to “search to know.” Instead, universities ask them to serve “the public, to work directly on solutions in a multidisciplinary way.” The danger, he went on, is “that academic researchers will not only embrace particular solutions but will fight for them in the political arena.” A university should keep to “its most fundamental purpose,” which is “the disinterested pursuit of truth.”

Here, it is possible to see these two competing conceptions of Universities and Higher Education side by side. It is perhaps reasonable to say that while individuals, short on social capital and protected time, always studied for skills to make their lives better, this was never considered to be the realm of Higher Education. However, with social changes and the requirements of what one has come to call ‘knowledge work’, the marginal pursuits of ‘lowly’ skills such as Accounting or Medicine have emerged as rewarding professions (as an anecdote, as late as 1900, the Harvard Medicine students were considered inferior to the students in more traditional disciplines). The traditional universities, even those set up in Britain in the last thirty years, somewhat failed to keep pace with the growing demand, at least partly because of the rather defined idea of the university they have all subscribed to (Collini discusses the tendency of later civic universities to follow Oxbridge traditions or ideas).

In the US, the For-Profits focused on ‘disproportionate number of students who are independent and who have no parental support, have incomes in the lowest quartile, have parents with an education below the high school level, and are racial or ethnic minorities. (JBL Associates, 2008, quoted in Hentschke, 2010). In 2005-6, 37% of the students and 38% of all degrees conferred by For-Profit institutions went to minorities, compared with 25% students and 19% of degrees in public colleges, and 20% of students and 16% of degrees at private, not-for-profit institutions. (JBL Associates, 2008, quoted in Hentschke, 2010) This, in the context, of what Daniel Golden called ‘the affirmative action for rich white people’ at America’s top private universities (Golden, 2007, also see Brown, Lauder and Ashton, 2011) In the UK, there had always been a significant number of international students in the For-Profit sector compared to the public sector. Williams and Woodhall (1979) reported that 46% of all students in the schools surveyed by them, in contrast to just 10% students in public further education. Many proprietary colleges in the UK depended solely on international students, and as the UK Border Agency complained later, a significant proportion of these students did not speak English at the specified level (by UK Border Agency), or did not have enough money to support them. While this led to policy changes which will be discussed later, this paints a general picture of international students without much social capital or financial ability coming to study in the UK. Dr Rahul Choudaha and others, studying the international student market from an US perspective, called the segment of students coming to UK private colleges ‘strugglers (low academic preparedness/ low financial resources)’: The colleges and these students were perfectly matched, as the colleges used education agents and these students, unable to handle the complexities of admissions themselves, depended on the agents for selection of college and courses. [Choudaha et al, 2012a]

It is thus possible to read the history of the For-Profit institutions as a sort of pioneer narrative, serving the aspirations of striving classes whereas the mainstream public and private higher education created and maintained social capital: Rosen(2011) calls the students going to traditional schools ‘automatics’, students who grew up never thinking they won’t go to college. Karabell (1998, Pp 5) talks about students, mainly of community colleges but something that will resonate with students of For-Profit schools as well, making a ‘choice’, rather than taking Higher Education as an ‘entitlement’, as students in elite schools will do: This resonates with what a recent longitudinal study of UK students towards university costs (the university fees were £3000 a year when the study was conducted), where more than 40% students from households earning less than £26,000 a year were ‘concerned’ about the university costs and about 32% of them decided against going to the university. (Ross & Lloyd, 2013)

For-Profits, in a strange irony of sorts, emerged to serve just the type of people Justin Smith Morill (of Morill Act of 1862 fame) intended to serve: “[These people] snatch their education, such as it is, from the crevices of labor and sleep, they grope in twilight. Our country depends on them to do the handiwork of the nation.” (Quoted in Rosen, 2011)


Auletta, K (2012), Get Rich U, New Yorker, 30th April 2012. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/04/30/120430fa_fact_auletta?currentPage=all. Accessed on 26th July 2013.  

Brown, P, Lauder, H and Ashton, D (2011), The Global Auction: The Broken Promises of Education, Jobs and Incomes, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Choudaha, R, Orosz, K and Chang, L (2012a), Not all international students are the same: understanding segments, mapping behavour, World Education Services: Research and Advisory Services, New York. Available for download from www.wes.org/ras, Accessed on 1st January 2013. 

Collini, S (2012), What are universities for?, Penguin, London.

Golden, D (2007), The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges--And Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, Three Rivers Press, New York.  

Hentschke, GC (2010), Evolving Markets of For-Profit Higher Education, in Hentschke, GC, Lechuga, VM and Tierney, WG (2010), For-Profit Colleges and Universities: Their Markets, Regulation, Performance, and Place in Higher Education, Stylus, Sterling, VA.

JBL Associates (2008), 2008 Fact Book: A profile of career colleges and universities, Imagine America Foundation, Washington DC.

Jump, P (2012), US for-profit universities 'unworthy of the name', Times Higher Education, 16th February 2012. London.

Nathan, R (2005), My Freshman Year: What A Professor Learned by becoming a student, Penguin, New York.

Rosen, A S(2011), Change.edu: Rebooting for the New Talent Economy, Kaplan Publishing, New York.

Ross, A  & Lloyd, J (2013), Access for All: An investigation of young people’s attitudes to the cost of higher education using the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England, Strategic Society Centre, London.

Ruch, R S (2001), Higher Ed, Inc.: The Rise of the For-Profit University, Page 1, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.

Williams, G and Woodhall, M (1979), Independent Further Education, Policy Studies Institute, Volume XLV No. 581, June 1979, London.


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