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Are For-Profit Colleges Evil?

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I used to be a bit of a snob about for-profit colleges. Okay, more than a snob -- I was arrogant, narrow-minded, and misinformed. Before I became a hedge fund manager, I got a Ph.D. in English at Yale University and taught at Bowdoin College and the City University of New York (CUNY), all venerable academic powerhouses. I remember the first time one of my CUNY students told me she was transferring to a for-profit technical college. This student, whom I will call Laura, is a remarkable woman who had been given a very unpromising start in life. After being horribly abused by her parents, she had run away in her early teens and grown up homeless, suffering in ways I could scarcely imagine. In her twenties, after having a child, she had become serious about education, gotten her G.E.D., and shown up in college.

Somehow, despite going nowhere near a classroom for most of her teens, Laura had become a dazzling writer, as good as the best I had taught at Yale or Bowdoin. Her cool, deadpan, yet fiercely moral prose reminded me of Joan Didion's; she wrote unforgettable portraits of the monsters, saints, and lunatics she had encountered in her travels. Her very first college essay was good enough for Harper's or the New Yorker. I encouraged Laura to publish her work, but she was too busy raising her child, organizing for the New York Public Interest Research Group, and getting her degree. She would have made a fine candidate for the Rhodes Scholarship if she had any interest in it -- and if she hadn't already been over the age limit. But Laura's academic career then took a new and unexpected twist: she told me she was leaving the CUNY system and starting the computer science program at a for-profit college. I was baffled. But Laura had a clear sense of what she was doing. What follows is the story of my own learning process, my education about for-profit education.

I could have understood Laura transferring to Columbia University. But why would she leave for a for-profit school? The CUNY system offered almost infinite opportunities and despite all its flaws had educated numerous Nobel Prize winners and captains of industry. For-profit schools, on the other hand, were the bottom of the academic pecking order, weren't they? I thought of the grubby storefront campuses of some small technical schools, and the ads in the subway cars, alongside the ads for Dr. Jonathan Zizmor, dermatologist ("Are you suffering from acne, scars, or discoloration?"). Why would Laura take on more debt to pay a higher tuition bill? And what about her writing? Had they tricked her in some way? That didn't seem very plausible. Laura had fewer illusions than anyone else I knew, and after her years on the street she could detect any kind of dishonesty instantly, as if it were lit up in red neon.

I tried to talk her out of leaving, but Laura had a clear, well-reasoned set of arguments. She said the for-profit would fit her schedule better, let her get her degree in half the time, probably also prepare her better for her first high-paying job, and definitely provide stronger job placement services. For-profit schools target the job occupations most in demand, work closely with employers, and develop new curricular materials (unlike the Yale professor who in the late eighties was still teaching a machine code course using a microprocessor from Zilog rather than one from Intel). For-profits are doing some impressive innovation in areas like multimedia online textbooks and medical simulation software.

The for-profits use practitioners as teachers, and each teacher is thus also a career coach and unofficial placement officer. The for-profits offer rolling course starts every six weeks, so Laura didn't have to wait for the beginning of a new semester to start a course. For-profits have streamlined, easy-to-use administrative processes, and they monitor the progress of their students closely. After a single absence, a for-profit school will probably follow up to see whether a student needs any help. I hadn't known that the for-profits had so many positive qualities, but I was worried that Laura's degree would be less credible and prestigious than a CUNY degree. Laura was quite unconcerned with prestige. She wanted to know how to do things, and she thought my focus on the reputation of an institution was a little, well, quaint.

I have spent a lot of my life doing things that are prestigious, but I am starting to understand Laura's point of view. I don't regret any part of my wonderful education, but I am starting to wish that I had also pursued more knowledge of other kinds. And Ivy League institutions do have a rather narrow definition of what constitutes knowledge. When I learned from my CUNY students what it takes to manage a large construction project or to modify a car engine, I developed a higher degree of humility about my own particular skill set. And I now look in a different way at diplomas from for-profit institutions: instead of seeing something that is not prestigious, I see something earned by the stubborn, disciplined, even heroic persistence of a working adult.

Disclosure: I believe that some but not all for-profit education companies do useful and honorable work, and my fund owns stock in American Public Education, Inc., Bridgepoint Education, Capella Education, and Grand Canyon Education. My family owns stock in these companies as well as Strayer University, privately held Post University, and several educational software startups. I have in the past shorted Moody's.