Professors teach students not to be judgmental; to avoid stereotyping; and to appreciate innovation and diversity. Yet, readers of Higher Education publications will find daily posts and articles that — either expressly or tacitly — attack proponents of a different economic philosophy. We see this most starkly when discussing the merits of for-profit and non-profit education.
Until the national income tax was established in 1913 there was no such thing as a “non-profit college” in the United States. While some states exempted private colleges from property taxes prior to 1914, others did not. The 501(c)3 concept we take as a given today is just over a century old, and increased in prominence primarily in the last half of the 20th Century. For context: The origins of academia trace to Ancient Greece, and universities have been established for over 900 years.
The view, held by many but not all industry professionals, that profit and education are mutually exclusive is relatively new. To the contrary, consider the Sophists of Ancient Greece who traveled the countryside selling their knowledge to those willing to pay. Sophists invested in knowledge; charged for sharing it; and their students would then earn wealth (or retain inherited wealth) based on that knowledge. Those students became known as “sophisticated”.
More recently, consider the growth of Harvard University. Prior to the Civil War, Harvard was a long-established but — according to one prominent historian — was “a sleepy local school”. Significant growth and preeminence began in 1869 when its new President, Charles W. Eliot, emphasized the relationship between economic development and education. He monetized research and replaced trustees who were largely clergy and lawyers with businessmen (Hall, P.D., 2004).
There has always been a marketing component to academia. Think about: Can you name an industry that is more brand conscious than academia? Branding and positioning are major aspects of the industry, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. But branding and positioning have to be done correctly. Otherwise, the efforts look like arrogance, pettiness and mean-spirited competition.
Some leaders and managers of for-profit colleges have made bad decisions in recent years, and created cultures misaligned with the history and mission of academia. Some marketing tactics have been unethical and unconscionable. Reasonable people understand this. But for-profit educators have also provided college access to traditionally ignored markets. Undoubtedly, for-profit educators have also played a positive role in the evolution of education technology (especially online courses).
Non-profit colleges have played profoundly positive role in society. College is a right of passage for millions. But what about the economic exploitation of adjunct professors to cut costs? What about a convoluted tiered pricing system that leaves some students paying an inflated tuition price, while other students pay $0. A non-profit college president once told me how he “loves big classes”. Yet, the evidence is clear that “small classes” enhance student learning outcomes. What about professors and leaders who refuse to accept scientific evidence that online instruction is, when facilitated correctly, as effective as on-site instruction?
The point: Higher Education is a unique industry with complex challenges. Educators should focus on meeting the needs of students…not casting aspersions. There are a lot of great for-profit colleges, and some that probably shouldn’t be in the market. There a lot of great non-profit colleges, and some that are woefully inefficient and mismanaged. As an industry, academia need to focus on the needs students and their families. The question shouldn’t be “what’s the best college?”, rather “what’s the best college for each student?”
- Hall, P.D. (2004). Historical Perspectives on Nonprofit Organizations in the United States. In Robert Herman (ed.), The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Management and Leadership — Second Edition (Jossey-Bass Publishers).