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Sunday, October 3, 2010

Crypto vouchers and For-Profit Colleges

This weekend I had so many deadlines piling up on me that I decided it was the optimal time to research the for-profit colleges, which have been crowding the educational policy sector of the blogosphere of late. Many conservatives and libertarians, while deploring the distortions caused by government funding of (for-profit and traditional) college education, express an interest in the for-profit education sector - an interest which I suspect is nurtured by their distaste for the liberal academics dominating traditional universities.

I had no prior knowledge of for-profit colleges other than the emails they occasionally send me asking me to recommend potential math faculty to them. My biases are what you might expect - I assumed that these were just diploma mills providing little or no education. My research topic was : what does a math major look like at a for-profit? My research tools went no further than Google. I only looked at a few of the larger for-profits, such as Phoenix and DeVry.

My first discovery was that the larger for-profits I examined are amazingly opaque. You cannot find the lists of courses readily available on traditional universities' web sites. Faculty lists at Phoenix are arranged by college rather than by department, meaning you have to sift through a data dump, if you want to determine who teaches math. Even finding what math courses they offer is difficult. Every query on their website seems to offer different answers. I felt like an accountant hired to assess Enron. The only consistent answer to my queries was : every math course I found was no higher than the level of courses offered by a large public high school; the descriptions sounded lower level than what you would find at a good public high school. Conclusion: within my area of expertise and my narrow investigation, these schools are essentially high schools.

This discovery puts the discussion of government funding of for-profit education in a rather different light. We should really view it as a vast federal government experiment in educational vouchers for private high schools. I have long advocated state funding for voucher programs; federal funding is perhaps constitutional overreach. I think this program, if continued, would be greatly improved if it was extended to all private high schools, and not restricted to those labelling themselves as universities. This would allow students to use the tuition money to obtain an excellent education before college.
(My apologies to all those for-profit colleges of higher quality than the handful I probed.)

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