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February 11, 2011 10:00 AM For-Profit Colleges: “Hitting Their Numbers”

By Daniel Luzer

From 2001 to 2005 Neil Raisman served as the chancellor of the Briarcliffe College, a for-profit school on Long Island. Raisman, who now works as an independent consultant, indicates that, contrary to what many for-profit administrators keep saying, it may be about time for some regulation.

As he writes in a guest post up at the New America Foundation’s blog, for-profit colleges are actually structurally different from most schools, and that causes them to behave differently:

So far the Career College Association, its members, and even some of their accreditors have mostly responded to the criticism by trying to downplay the differences between their schools and traditional colleges and universities. But these differences are real. Career colleges that are publicly held must be answerable to their stock holders and thus need to maximize their profits— which causes many of the issues Congress is looking at.
I have observed some leaders of companies, schools, and departments doing things to make numbers that were, to be polite, very questionable. And yet, they were rewarded for doing so. In the business, we all know of schools that are “shaving the edges” of the rules to hit financial goals with little regard to how these actions would affect student learning or the industry at large should the “shaving” draw public blood. Granted, this is not the behavior of everyone in career colleges. But because the leaders of companies, schools, and departments do not typically see their main function as furthering the education of students and their success, some do things that put finances over learning and that’s when trouble, the media, and politicians strike.

Now virtually no colleges in America actually pay much attention to student learning, really, because colleges and students and parents tend not to pay attention to that sort of thing.

At many normal (non-profit) colleges, however, staff is at least rewarded for vague proxies for student learning. More students apply for the school, the graduation rate improves, alumni give money, and students win awards. All of these things aren’t learning but they do indicate that the school is doing a rather good job.

At career colleges, however, none of this stuff really matters. As Raisman writes, “Why do they do they engage in questionable practices? Simple. Their success depends on them hitting their numbers and getting their bonuses.”

They just have to enroll more students. That’s generally the only thing that matters.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer