Thursday, April 1, 2010

For-Profits vs Community Colleges -- The Debate Continues...

Are students attending for-profit institutions getting their money's worth, especially compared to attending community college? I've tackled this one before. Now, another study commissioned by a for-profit has appeared, claiming to fill gaps in our knowledge.

Since I only have a powerpoint presentation of the findings to review, and my opinion is pretty-well expressed in other media coverage, I'll just hit a few notes I've not yet seen mentioned elsewhere.

1. The authors want to claim that the for-profit sector is outpacing community colleges' capacity for enrollment expansion. To back this up, they compare recent enrollment growth in the two sectors. But they fail to mention the very different levels of overall enrollment --community colleges enrolled approximately 1.2 million more students in 2009 than were enrolled in 2007-- in comparison there were 1.4 million students total in for-profit institutions in 2007. Growth is affected by the starting point, and obviously capacity is too. It's harder to expand capacity when one's already nearing capacity. Moreover, this kind of assertion ignores the fact that the expansion of community college enrollment depends on the availability of public resources-- in comparison, the for-profit sector does not, and is correspondingly more nimble. But whether that's a "good" thing is far from clear.

2. The authors also purport that for-profit students realize greater wage gains from their investment. But they neglect the fact that community college students begin with higher earnings--and experience nearly the same dollar gains (over $7000). It is arguably more difficult to stimulate an increase in earnings for those who are better-off to start with compared to someone who starts at minimum wage (e.g. to bring someone from $21K to $28K, compared to $15K to $22K).

3. The study also indicates that for-profit students do not appear to know less about debt than other students. Given that they take on more loans, from a wider range of sources, "not knowing less" is insufficient-- if anything, the burden's on the for-profits to do a better than average job since their grads incur more than average debt.

All that said, I applaud the for-profits for their willingness to consider hard facts and data. I'd like to see them provide longitudinal student-unit record data to independent researchers so we can begin to sort out some of the bigger, lingering questions about student learning and the like. Maybe that's in the future.