Where profit does not drive access

Samantha Katsounas

Education is the great equalizer. Higher education was and remains the gateway to economic and social mobility. In recent years, however, demand for a college degree has far outpaced the space available at four-year universities. This availability vacuum has created an opening for a new kind of opportunistic institution: the for-profit university.

Students flock to for-profit colleges, such as the University of Phoenix and the DeVry Institute, so quickly that enrollment in these institutions has increased 225 percent over the past decade. It has become an incredibly lucrative industry. An extensive U.S. Senate report found that while the average profit of these institutions is $127 million per year, the average student will drop out with massive debt instead of a degree. The exploitative model of the for-profit college was, for a time, excused as the only option for non-traditional students or students who wanted technical training.

In Texas, that’s about to change. Earlier this month, Mark Milliron was named the first chancellor of the new Texas branch of Western Governors University. Founded in 1997, Western Governors University is the brainchild of 19 governors who aimed to create an appealing, nonprofit alternative to the status quo. The ideology behind WGU-Texas diverges from that of colleges like the University of Phoenix in its repudiation of profit. WGU, the only accredited all-online college, has “no $100-million marketing budget and no 30-percent profit margin” like other for-profit institutions, according to Washington Monthly. While annual tuition at the average for-profit institution is $14,000, the WGU charges only $6,000.

The appointment of Milliron is especially impressive. Formerly employed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Milliron, who holds a doctorate in education administration from UT, is a rising star in higher education. The recent push for efficiency coupled with the need for quality instruction has many experts saying that both desires cannot be satisfied at once. However, Milliron and WGU are adamant in the assertion that the two do not have to be mutually exclusive.

WGU focuses on so-called “competency-based” advancement that allows students to finish their degrees in half the time. This is possible because many of their students already “have significant experience in their field,” according to The Texas Tribune. Though WGU is an online school, Mark Milliron has said its instruction is based on personal connection instead of the traditionally distant nature of online courses. Additionally, students have the flexibility to start their six-month term on the first date of any month, eschewing the fall or spring semester schedule of traditional institutions.

In August, Gov. Rick Perry announced the creation of this innovative Texas subsidiary as part of his call for efficient higher education reform. The formation of WGU-Texas earned bipartisan support, a wholly surprising move in an era of high-intensity bickering between parties regarding higher education.

But not all legislators were pleased with the rhetoric of opposition to for-profit institutions. State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, raised complaints when legislators proposed increasing accountability for for-profit institutions. Huberty, who attained his MBA from the University of Phoenix, expressed a desire to have his degree be “as valuable” as if it were from another school, calling for-profit colleges “a very solid competitor [that] have a lot of great ideas,” according to the Tribune. For Huberty and others, the blind of personal experience has often obscured the reality of exploitation inherent in these institutions.

The victims of for-profits are left with a sub-standard education and more debt than they would have accumulated if they had studied elsewhere. The 2010 U.S. Senate report called the recruiting style of for-profit colleges “abusive” and concluded that their students were less likely to pass the state licensing exam in their chosen fields. The so-called “great idea” exists only in the sense that for-profit colleges are an alternative to the restrictive degree path of a traditional four-year institution. Their methods, however, are questionable at best and manipulative at worst.

There is a belief inherent in for-profit colleges that education is at its best when focused on efficiency and profit. This perception is damaging to students and to the perception of our postsecondary education system. Higher education is the clearest path to success, but it can’t perform this function if institutions exploit the students they purport to help. WGU proves that there is a viable alternative to profit-based teaching models. It may not be the perfect solution for everyone, but it bridges the gap between quality education and accessibility.

Katsounas is a finance and government sophomore.