University [and Education] for Sale: Yes, Universities are For-Profit

Many average American students and their family and friends were appalled and dismayed at modern higher educational institutions after hearing in August, 2016 that a slew of for-profit colleges, especially ITT Technical Institute and Devry University, were barred from further enrolling students per order of the US Department of Education. Leaving hundreds of thousands of enrolled students with federal debts and without credentials, many foresaw that the end of ITT-Tech and others signalled the death knell for for-profit colleges all-together. Stated in a 2016 article by The New Republic, “For-profit colleges have come under fire for their poor performance and willingness to profit off of students, who leave with a worthless degree and massive debt…But if Obama has pushed for-profit colleges to the brink over the last few years, it’s possible that a rosier future is ahead of those that can survive until 2017.”

Nearing the end of 2018, we know that The New Republic forecast did not pan-out. Traditionally categoried for-profit colleges and institutions of higher education remain in full-vigor (i.e.,University of Pheonix, American Military University, Hamilton College, South University). Yet, I would argue that higher education reporters and academics who commonly critique such institutions are missing the point. On-paper, it is quite easy to define and ID for-profit centers in their filings and subsequent complaints made by enrollees, yet, they often do not look at those public and private instutions from which they originate from.

Universities and colleges, while receiving non-profit tax benefits, are more for-profit in organization, philosophy, and curriculum than ever in their existence in America. Take for instance the growing trend and push for ‘interdisciplinarity.’ Commented on in 2008 by Wesley College historian, Ethan Kleinberg, these “once marginal sites for innovative scholarship,” he notes, “are now prominently displayed in brochures and Web pages, and they are viewed as necessary for attracting the best students.” Interdisciplinary studies in America has been complicit in the academy’s shift in the last two decades into a university-as-service-industry model, resulting in fragmentation of the university into a series of localized specializations isolated from, and in competition with, one another to attract niche customers—students. In America, “…the interdisciplinary departments, programs, and centers found willing partners but at a price: their interdisciplinarity. Far from marking the dawn of an interdisciplinary era, this pact with the devil has marked the end of real interdisciplinarity.” 

Yet, with just this one case, it clear how entrenched universities for-profit strategies have pervaded and persisted.  Univeristies seek and tone their specific institutions based on how students will obtain specific marketable skills or sites of interests. Education is a product, one that is more convincing as such than a process of human development. The sooner we change the way we see modern issues in universities’ embrace of for-profit strategies the better and more prepared the professoriate can call for institutional changes.

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