John Oliver's Rant on For-Profit Colleges

Recently, comedian and host of "Last Week Tonight" John Oliver went on a rant about higher education, with a specific focus on student debt and for-profit schools. I can't help but respond to some of his comments.

For-Profit Education: It's Not All Bad

First, it is important to recognize that the for-profit school industry is relatively new to the American education system. It will continue to evolve and change as it finds its place within our education system. This industry reminds me a little about how we look at our armed forces. The U.S. Army has been considered an institution that leads change in our society, whether having to do with desegregation or medical treatment. Similarly, for-profits are leaders in higher education. There are many examples - they are the innovators in online learning, adaptive technologies, flipped classrooms, development of metrics to drive curriculum revisions, etc. Therefore, it is probably dangerous to argue that these schools are evil or bad for our society. Indeed, they are change agents, and change leads to progress.

How For-Profit Colleges Spend Money

Next, Mr. Oliver argues that for-profits spend too much money on marketing and sales, and not enough on education. I have spent much of my career on college campuses and I would observe that many traditional schools (public and private universities and colleges) have been turned into resorts. These schools have engaged in large capital campaigns focused on building hotel-like dormitories, chic restaurants and even fancy fountains to attract more students. Surely, these funds could have been used for educational purposes or could not have been spent so tuition did not have to increase.

Who's Actually Using For-Profit Education

Most importantly, Mr. Oliver fails to recognize the segment of students for-profit schools have offered education to over the last decade. Similar to community colleges, for-profits have tended to serve what is called the "non-traditional population;" those that often struggle to graduate from high school or never finish college. This includes disadvantaged students and students who work full-time and want to go back to school. It's somewhat comical that some in our society celebrate the selective, traditional schools that have incredible resources and donors, yet do not want to support institutions that focus on higher-risk students. For-profits have offered an alternative for these students who could not attend a traditional school because they were inadequately prepared.

Furthermore, the for-profits service a very large percentage of the adult workforce. These are students who want to get their undergraduate degree, earn a graduate degree, or learn a new skill through a certification program. Employers spend a tremendous amount of money at for-profits through tuition assistance programs. Generally, for-profits rank in the top two for most companies in terms of amount of spend. Until recently, traditional schools did not offer online programs with flexible schedules that met the needs of our workforce.

The Takeaway

For-profits have provided a significant amount of value to society. They may not be perfect, but neither are the traditional schools. I know Mr. Oliver is an entertainer, but he needs to look beyond the great sound bites and provide a more objective perspective on education in America.
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