For the last two weeks, Higher Ed Watch has been running guest posts from Neil Raisman, the former chancellor at Briarcliffe College, which is owned by the Career Education Corporation. (You can read both posts here and here.)
So far, the posts have mostly talked about the compensation models at for-profits (I’m hoping that later ones will talk about the academic side), but this point that is made throughout this week’s post caught my eye:
The corporate “seagulls” are paid better, fly into a school, do what seagulls do, and fly off leaving the field hands to clean up the mess.
For some reason, the “seagulls” seem to have a belief that if they can bully people, the field hands will respond and do better — even if the people at the school know the goals being set cannot be met, or the new program will not succeed in the school’s area, or the demanded reductions in staff will only reduce the ability to perform and meet the goals set.
Admissions people are pushed to achieve unrealistic numbers. They are told “this is not something you should do but…” They are constantly threatened with dismissal, being written up and put on probation if they do not hit their application or phone calling and admission goals. Then to keep their jobs, they feel they have to get students any way they can.
As I wrote several months ago, a lot of the difficulties around recruitment and enrollment practices derive from an educational model where easy scaling means the profit margin stays healthy regardless of size and the pressure is always on getting as big as possible. But this argument adds another interesting wrinkle–the tension between those on campus and those in headquarters.
The people working in the schools know their area and community. They have a sense of demand and needs. If the corporate office is located elsewhere, then there’s a good chance the executives don’t have as good a read on those issues. That can create significant gaps between expectations and reality, which leads to the screaming bursts and poor treatment that Raisman talks about in his post.
These kind of disconnects and difficulties indicate two policy points. First, organizational culture really matters. If the executives take a more measured approach to growth, as we see many schools doing now, then one would hope that would result is lessened pressure and more options for recruiters to go after the students who really can and want to enroll. Second, it highlights just how hard it is for our current accountability structure to deal with large for-profit schools. You can talk about higher education as a business, but at the end of the day, most traditional colleges are structured in more or less the same geographic area. As Kevin noted in his testimony about accreditation a few weeks ago, our current system just doesn’t know how to handle these large colleges that really are national corporations as well:
When the accreditation system as we know it was established, nobody could have conceived of large, nationwide, publicly-traded higher education corporations using information technology to expand at a pace and a scale far beyond what has ever occurred before. I have no objection to people making a profit, or corporations per se. Nobody has any special claims to virtue here. But it’s abundantly clear that these new organizations are different organizations. Not inherently better or worse, but different, operating under a fundamentally different set of incentives.
The existing accreditation system was not designed to accommodate them and it would be a mistake to try to bend or warp its mission to do so. It can’t be done. If accreditors try, they will fail, and they will be blamed for the consequences of that failure. And, by extension, this body will be blamed as well.
I’ll be curious to see how Raisman’s next blog posts talks about ways policy can help lessen these tensions between campuses and central headquarters and encourage everyone to act in the best interests of students.