An Appeal for For-Profit Education

I chair the Governing Board at Grantham University in Kansas City, Missouri, an on-line, for-profit institution. Grantham diverges from Congress’ caricature of for-profits. More than ninety percent of its students have a military background; in fact, most of these students remain in active service as they pursue their degrees. Most are also first generation college enrollers. The average age of the student population is thirty and a disproportionate number are African-American or Hispanic.                                                                               

One might assume – as many in the Congress do – that Grantham is a “matchbook cover” institution offering undemanding programs and disdain for academic integrity, but nothing could be further from the truth. Though standards for admission are not up to the Ivy League’s requirements, the exit requirements are rigorous. Of course, not every student thrives. However, after considering high school grades and SAT scores, students’ success rates defy expectations.         

At last year’s Grantham commencement I observed families crying uncontrollably as their loved ones rose to accept diplomas. This wasn’t like any graduation I experienced in my 35 year academic career. Children, parents and grandparents participated in a poignant scene. For most of those present, their for-profit degree represented a pathway to a promising future.                     

There is yet another good reason to support for-profit education. Non-profit universities tend to ignore sound business practices because demand for their degrees has been inelastic. Therefore, university officials have no concept of efficiency. Having been a professor and dean at a private institution, I can confirm the existence of widespread waste, duplication, and inordinate expense on student entertainment. Higher tuition has not adversely affected student enrollment; hence, the price of college tends to be arbitrary.    

While it is true that for-profit institutions might prioritize profit over quality education, profit isn’t a dirty word when it imposes restraints on non-essential spending. For-profits’ responsibility to stockholders means that lavish, unnecessary expenditures are unacceptable. Accordingly, for-profits don’t offer the amenities that increase student satisfaction but have little impact on student success. Unlike their spendthrift peers in the non-profit world, for-profits have no sports teams, bowling alleys, or student lounges.            

If one were to establish a university de novo one wouldn’t invest in bricks and mortar. It is not coincidental that Governors’ University, organized by the governors of western states, is an on-line program. With the nominal cost of higher education beyond the reach of average income earners and explosion of student debt, on-line education will become an increasingly attractive option for both the consumers and producers of higher education. Even elite private institutions are already offering a full array of online courses.

Stereotypes die hard, so it will undoubtedly take a crisis for meaningful change to occur. With the college tuition bubble about to burst, that crisis is just over the horizon. In short order, the for-profit, on-line institution will look like a reasonable educational alternative for students, parents, and politicians who have thrown vast sums at traditional institutions of higher learning.

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