For-profit colleges aren't the enemy

  • Article by: DAVID RASK BEHLING
  • Updated: July 12, 2012 - 8:09 PM

I teach at a for-profit college. That's enough to make me persona non grata in some circles. I

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At the liberal arts college where I teach, faculty and staff help students recognize and explore their options and give them the tools to find a path to their vocations as teachers, coaches, artists, bankers, managers, actors, editors, lawyers, doctors ... and the list could go on.

Sometimes we do hold their hands as they take risks and step through doorways they hadn't anticipated, but we do not "train" them for jobs with guaranteed million-dollar payouts. What they do with their education -- in all its dimensions -- is going to depend on their own ambition and the state of the economy.

A lot of liberal arts colleges do the same things that my college does. Not always in the same way, but that's probably for the best. Infinite diversity within infinite combinations is a good description of liberal arts education in the United States.

Over the past few years, however, something has changed. When I am together with colleagues from other liberal arts schools, I get a sense that a barrier has gone up between them and me. Many of them, and members of the public, lump my college in with other, less-reputable institutions.

The reasons for this are not a complete mystery: I teach at a for-profit college. That's enough to make me persona non grata in some circles. It's interesting how some people don't ever make it past that status to find out more about what I do at this college.

Where does this negative view come from? Partly from what's really happened at those less-reputable schools, where making profits for investors became a higher priority than a quality education. Because a few institutions have done that, colleges like mine get treated with unfair suspicion, accused of making piles of money by charging students tuition for an education that won't actually help them improve their lives.

The reality in higher education, however, is that profit or not-for-profit status is no guarantee of quality. It's unfair to treat institutions, instructors and students differently because of that status. Recently, a federal judge recognized that and stopped the government from imposing arbitrary and unfair regulations.

Regulations about gainful employment, for example. Until the judge blocked the attempt, only for-profit colleges had to prove that the incomes graduates earn justify the amount of tuition they pay. But what if a graduate of my college wants to work within organizations like the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, join the Peace Corps or serve with Teach for America? Those graduates are choosing to serve the world in ways that will make a difference. But they won't be making a huge amount of money.

The higher-education system in America needs transparency, so everybody -- students, parents, taxpayers -- can see how tuition is assessed and revenue is disbursed. But we also need to recognize that there are students attending many different kinds of colleges who are not interested in jobs with big paychecks. Their vocations take them into other kinds of careers.

So when we ask questions about higher education, the auditor's lens needs to look at the whole system. Not-for-profit institutions have accumulated a number of black marks all on their own, without the "corrupting influence" of for-profit colleges.

Those skyrocketing tuition charges, for example, were not caused by for-profit schools. Programs at private, nonprofit and state-run institutions -- athletics, fine arts, research -- often need to generate profits, even when they don't use that language.

At the college where I teach, our motto for many years has been "Learn-Live-Serve." Students enroll to work on degrees in the humanities, the sciences or business. In all of those programs, we equip our students to go out and make a difference in the world by preparing them for a life focused on learning, ethical living and serving their communities. If we're going to sort institutions into "worthy" and "unworthy," perhaps we should use criteria like that before looking at anything else.

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David Rask Behling lives in Albert Lea, Minn., and teaches literature and writing courses in the humanities program at Waldorf College.

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