Sandy Baum and Jorge Klor De Alva
February 23, 2022
Few issues are more contentious than the role of for-profit colleges in higher education, write Sandy Baum and Jorge Klor de Alva. But they say consensus is both necessary—and possible.
Few issues are more contentious than the role of for-profit colleges in higher education, even in today’s polarized climate. Unscrupulous predators, or seedbeds of innovation? Poor-performing and shady, or an essential resource, particularly for less-advantaged learners? Almost no one is neutral, and the resulting political standoff has become a recurring obstacle to higher education reform.
But consensus is possible. We know because we spent the past two years in a working group that brought skeptics and defenders of for-profit colleges together to look for common ground. The challenge we set for ourselves was to develop a policy framework that could protect students and taxpayers without penalizing colleges—proprietary or not—that produce positive results for learners.
What made working together possible was our common commitment to the idea that all colleges—regardless of whether they are public, nonprofit, or for-profit—should be accountable for student outcomes, including whether a program reasonably leads to a family-sustaining job. Additionally, we all agreed that for-profit institutions face unique incentives that warrant heightened scrutiny, backed by effective sanctions.
The Biden administration has launched its own effort to make policy on for-profit colleges—a process of negotiated rulemaking expected to drag on for many months. Because negotiators will likewise include skeptics and supporters, sound policies are likely to come only if student success is the shared goal. Our experience over the past two years—and the joint statement and report it produced, Accountability in Higher Education: For-Profit Colleges and Beyond—shed light on potential common ground.