Do For-Profits Need a New Brand Image?
Online learning, also known as distance learning, is here to stay. Some reports have indicated that the number of students in the United States who have taken at least one online course is now over 6 million. One sector within higher education that has ridden the wave of online course offerings is the for-profit industry. But the problem right now is that the phrase “for-profit education” has a strong, negative connotation because of the ongoing investigations, negative news reports, and vocal opponents. With this negative focus, can this sector be saved and should part of its image overhaul include a brand new name?
The For-Profits’ Visible Opponents
One of the current vocal critics of the for-profit industry is Michelle Rhee, Founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, described as a movement “designed to mobilize parents, teachers, students, administrators, and citizens throughout country, and to channel their energy to produce meaningful results on both the local and national level.” Rhee will be in attendance at the June convention of for-profit colleges and universities and has indicated the following purpose for her appearance:
“This is the basic truth I want to tell these schools: it doesn’t matter if a school is a for-profit or a non-profit, it needs to be doing a good job educating students. And if it’s failing to do that, it should be shut down. The problem this sector has is that too many of its schools are failing students, and no one is being held accountable.
But the problems aren’t just academic. Some of these schools seem to be engaged in downright malicious behavior, cravenly taking advantage of students trying to get a better education and a better job. An investigation by the Government Accountability Office in 2010 looked into recruiting practices at 15 for-profit colleges and found outright cases of fraud at four. Moreover, they found that officials at every single one of the colleges investigated lied or misrepresented the programs offered in order to convince students to enroll. That’s wrong, and I plan to tell them so.
These schools need to focus on getting the best outcomes for their students — the people relying on and trusting these schools to provide a high-quality education.” (Michelle Rhee, April 30, 2012)
David Halperin, Senior Fellow for the Republic Report, has been highly visible and vocal about his opposition of the for-profit industry. Among the many points Halperin has made, the following statements represent his views as well as those of many other opponents:
“The for-profit college industry gets about $32 billion of its approximately $35 billion annual revenue from federal financial aid. Fifteen of the largest for-profits get 86 percent of their money from federal student aid programs — such as Pell grants, student loans, and the G.I. Bill.
Meanwhile, Apollo Group, the University of Phoenix owner, attacked Harkin and Hagan for offering ‘misleading rhetoric.’ The Senators had singled out Apollo for employing more than 8,000 recruiters in 2010. Advertising Age recognized Apollo as one of the top 100 spenders on U.S. advertising in 2009 — $377 million, more than Apple.” (David Halperin, April 20, 2012)
A strong opponent is Senator Tom Harkin who has conducted a “lengthy pursuit of the industry” – proposing restrictive legislation, including a recent proposal to ban the use of federal money for advertising, marketing, and recruitment. Even President Obama signed an order to protect veterans and their post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, with wording that targets the for-profit industry. The following video clip is from the President’s visit to Fort Henry where the Executive Order was signed.
According to the White House, Office of the Press Secretary, the order includes the following statements:
“The Executive Order will require that colleges provide more transparent information about their outcomes and financial aid options for students, which will help ensure that students are aware of the true cost and likelihood of completion prior to enrolling.
According to the Senate HELP Committee, of the ten educational institutions collecting the most Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits between 2009 and 2011, eight were for-profit schools. Six of these schools had bachelor student withdrawal rates above 50 percent.” (White House, April 26, 2012)
The Support for For-Profits
Other than that coming from the for-profit industry itself, is there any news that provides support for this sector of education? In a separate column, Halperin quoted U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as stating: “Overall, I firmly believe for-profit schools are doing a good job in training students,” “but a few ‘bad actors’ are ‘doing a disservice’ to the entire industry.”
While searching for additional support I found three recent online columns that provided the following perspectives:
In a Huffington Post column, Justin Pope and Kimberly Hefling stated that “even critics acknowledge that quality at for-profit colleges varies widely, and many are a good fit for students, particularly adult learners looking for flexible scheduling and specialized career training that often requires a certificate but not a degree.”
A New York Times article by columnist Joe Nocera, Why We Need For-Profit Colleges, indicates his belief that “the industry’s transgressions have led many critics to conclude that the only way to ‘fix’ for-profit education is to get rid of it entirely. All of this obscures what really ought to be the most important fact about the industry: the country can’t afford to put it out of business. On the contrary, America needs it “” and needs it to succeed “” desperately. The schools most capable of meeting the country’s growing education needs are the for-profits.” Nocera also points to spending in other sectors of higher education: “the for-profits have flaws, but so do nonprofits, with their bloated infrastructure, sky-high tuition, out-of-control athletic programs and resistance to change. In a country where education matters so much, we need them both.”
Columnist Jay Mathews pointed out in a Washington Post article, 5 Reasons Why For-Profit Schools Will Survive, that “public and nonprofit private universities that dominate higher education are doing less with their money. They are building luxury dorms, restaurants and athletic facilities which don’t produce more learning or more graduates.”
The question that I have as an educator in this industry is this: How are for-profits going to address these issues? I realize that there are lengthy discussions about privatization of higher education, along with a need for greater transparency and accountability. It seems that accreditation and quality control measures will not be enough to alter the negative impression that’s been created by continued investigations and promoted by the media.
In my post, Benefits and Challenges of Attending a For-Profit School, I addressed the issue of tuition, preparing for future career opportunities, and graduation or completion rates. I also made a case in support of for-profit schools and discussed the research I conducted prior to starting my degree program. I examined the potential costs, requirements and obligations associated with acquiring student loan debt, and potential career options once the degree was completed. I also reminded students that they must make an informed decision about starting any type of degree program, weighing both the benefits and challenges before selecting a school. However, the issues plaguing this industry are going to have a negative impact on students’ decisions, which is going to require a new approach on the part of the schools themselves if their image is to change.
A recent Inside Higher Ed blog, Rebranding a University, provided an idea that may be part of the solution. The justification for rebranding is to help promote evolution of the public’s perception as the institution itself evolves. This might be a helpful strategy for the for-profit industry to put the focus back on the students and emphasize the underlying purpose of these schools. I work in this industry and I can speak for several major online schools that are very concerned about, and proactively involved in, the enhancement of the quality of programs and instructors, along with the relevancy and usability of the knowledge acquired and degrees completed. For those schools, a new branding strategy could emphasize accountability, value, and support services. How about a brand name for those schools, joining together to form a new coalition of quality and transparency, and call them the For-Students industry?
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