Higher Education All Over Again

Cross-posted on Education Week

I turned on NPR the other day and heard the interviewer ask Senator Harkin why his committee, in its new report, had gone after the for-profit vocational schools so aggressively. The Republicans, the interviewer explained, were pointing out that the public community colleges were guilty of some of the same excesses. Maybe this was just another case of the Democrats reflexively attacking the private sector. Well, said the Senator, the difference might be one of scale. Sure, the community colleges are also taking public money for students who do not complete and pocketing that money even when the students were left with nothing but debt as far as the eye could see. But many of the for-profits, unlike the community colleges, are spending—are you ready for this?—more money on their recruiting operations than they are on their instructional programs.

Now that is a fact to conjure with! But then I recalled a blog I had recently written in this space on the subject of not-for-profit higher education. In that blog, I pointed out that although the price of higher education has been rising at rates higher than the rate of inflation for decades, the amount of time in the academic year available for educating students—the number of days available for classroom instruction—has been steadily declining. More money has been charged—actually, much more—for less and less instruction. And where has the money been going? Basically, the answer is administration and amenities, everything but instruction. And guess what one of the biggest components of administrative costs is: everything related to recruiting.

Maybe the higher education for-profits and the higher education not-for-profits are not so different after all. In the blog I wrote a few months ago on this topic, before the Harkin committee report came out, I proposed a solution. I suggested that the federal government tell the institutions that the national interest lies in providing instruction to students who need it. And that is where its loans and grants are going to go, not into climbing walls, and fancy eateries, and classy dorms, and—most especially—not into recruiting and development. So, if the institutions want to offer all those things, God bless them, but they will have to go elsewhere because the American taxpayer will not foot the bill.

Senator Harkin is certainly right. The costs of recruiting in the not-for-profit higher education sector do not come within a country mile of the cost of instruction in those institutions. But I still think that it would be good policy for the people of the United States to say that their support for students in the higher education system should focus on providing support for instruction, and I think such a policy would force big changes in the way money is spent and value is delivered in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors of American higher education. It is a simple idea. It just might work.