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NCSPE Hosts Conference on For-Profit Higher Education


NCSPE panel on privatization.

NCSPE panel on privatization.

On May 1st and 2nd the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education hosted a conference on "Markets, Profits, and the Future of Higher Education" at Teachers College. The conference was the first of its kind in the country and was co-sponsored by The Community College Research Center at Teachers College, The Futures Project at Brown University, and the For-Profit Higher Education Project at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia. Approximately 90 people participated, many of them already knowledgeable and engaged in the field of for-profit higher education.

Frank Newman, of the Futures Project and Visiting Professor of Education, said that the explosion of for-profit higher education over the last 10 years motivated the conference. The University of Phoenix, the leading for-profit provider of higher education in the United States, boasts 160,000 students across the nation. The conference aimed to address three key questions; "What unique contributions do for-profit institutions in higher education make that complement or supplement those of public and not-for-profit colleges and universities? What impact has the growth of for-profit institutions and practices in higher education had on the behavior of not-for-profits? Is the rise of for-profit institutions and practices eroding or augmenting the public purposes of higher education?"

The National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education is a non-partisan organization dedicated to the study of privatization in education. NCSPE gathers research data on these issues in order to study them and help policy-makers make informed choices. The Center often finds it difficult, however, to maintain a neutral stance on such hotly contested issues as well as attract funding for the Center due to its non-partisan stance.

Henry Levin, director of NCSPE, and the William H. Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education, said, "The purpose of universities is to study issues, not to necessarily take sides."

The conference organizers hoped to provide a space for thoughtful debate and exchange of ideas and information, in order to better understand the consequences of the rise in for-profit higher education. The papers presented at the conference explored a wide range of the questions raised by for-profit higher education. Presenters looked at technology and for-profit higher education, distance learning, the model of the University of Phoenix, and for-profit colleges and non-traditional students, among other questions. All the conference papers are available online at the NCSPE website,

Matthew Pittinsky, Chairman of Blackboard, Inc. and a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, presented on the "Views of the Financial Community Towards For-Profit Higher Education." TC Professor Irving Hamer chaired the panel with discussion by former New York City Schools Chancellor Harold Levy.

Levy responded to an audience question on whether or not for-profit institutions are competing with traditional higher education institutions. "I think that the for-profits are getting out more students who otherwise would not come, and in that respect it's not competing. I think they are competing with the community colleges, today, very directly, very bluntly and on the whole I think they're doing a better job."

Newman pointed out that while the for-profit institutions do not currently compete with more traditional universities because they occupy a niche market, it is unlikely that that will remain the case. "This is the real danger. They start with the niche, but you can't keep growing and stay in the niche. They [for-profits] are competing. They've passed the point where they can be a niche player…about half of undergraduate students in higher education, forgetting the for-profits, are older working students…Of course they're competing."

Newman emphasized that there are advantages and disadvantages to for-profit higher education and it is important to look carefully at the issue. "It's a good thing that [the University of] Phoenix is making universities treat older students as intelligent human beings. It's probably a bad thing that they're not thinking much about the civic responsibility that goes with education. It's probably a bad thing that their entrepreneurial effort is pushing the traditional higher education community to take some entrepreneurial risk that may be beyond the borderline of what we think is appropriate. These are things we need to sort out. The important thing about a conference like this is we need to sort them out before a trend gets so far gone we can't do anything about it."

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