Tuesday, December 20, 2011

now tell me again....who are the good guys?

There has been a lot of attention to for-profit colleges in the news of late, with a story-line that plays especially well with the generally left-leaning audience of educators. It goes something like this:

For-profit colleges exist for profit and -- just like in the general world of capitalism and the self-interested (aka selfish and greedy) competition of the marketplace -- the people who run them are willing to use some rather suspicious tactics when going for that profit. For example, for-profit colleges charge huge tuitions, and use blatantly false claims when assuring students that highly paid employment after graduation means tuition debt makes sense. They inflate the rate of completion and graduation of their students. And then they inflate the rate of graduates working in their field, along with the money they make in those jobs. They lie -- in order to make a profit. And then they are unconcerned about the wreck they make of the lives of the students whose money they so callously take...As long as they make money, that is all that matters.

I have heard this narrative from lots of places, and it made sense to me. The implicit contrast, of course, is with the noble people who work in the not-for-profit world of higher ed -- willingly forgoing the higher pay of the private sector in order to pursue the calling of seeking knowledge for its own sake, and passing it on to the eager young minds waiting to be shaped and guided....That would be me and my colleagues at PCC.

Alas, I had this little vision of the good guys and bad guys of higher ed shaken up last year at the American Association of Community Colleges, when I went to a session put on by Peter P. Smith. I went to hear him only because of his bio. He had served as the president of a community college in Vermont, and then as the founding president of the California State University at Monterey Bay. But then he left the noble not-for-profit world of higher ed to join Kaplan ( !) as a senior vice-president. (Kaplan is the largest provider of for-profit educational services in the world at the moment.) This, it seemed to me, was a MAJOR act of disloyalty and betrayal. How could anyone do that!?? How could he live with himself?!

I don't know exactly what I expected when I went to hear him.... but whatever it was, it wasn't what I got. First you need to know that a lot of marketing goes on at the AACC. There is an entire cavernous hall of vendors shilling expensive products, in row after row after row of booths. Lots of glossy pieces of paper get distributed. Logos are everywhere. Signs of the money to be made in higher ed are ubiquitous. The pure nobility of the pursuit of truth gets a bit lost in the hustle. In this context, it is easy to get a bit cynical. But 5 minutes into the presentation by this turncoat betrayer of the not-for-profit nobility of education and it was clear to me.... this guy is a serious idealist. It sounded to me like he believes more deeply in the intrinsic value of education than the most starry-eyed philosopher of education I ever met. I was flabbergasted! My conceptual categories were all confused! My sense of who is who was turned upside down. I felt that kind of vertigo that comes from having basic beliefs challenged.....

It has taken me a while to digest what I heard from him. He has a blog if you want to go and read his thinking: Peter P.Smith (He also has a book, but I haven't read it yet -- Harnessing America's Wasted Talent.) This all came back to me when I ran into a short article in Inside Higher Ed that quoted from him extensively. I am going to boil everything down, and no doubt oversimplify this. But here is the message I get from him, in a nutshell.

  • The world needs educated people now.
  • A lot.
  • The education techniques currently being used were good enough in previous eras (when we only needed an educated elite). They don't work now.
  • The accountability movement is all about bringing education into the information age, and finding ways to meet the new demands:
    • 100% of our citizens highly educated with skills in collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.
  • The biggest obstacle to developing new and effective education to meet the changed demands on higher ed are professional educators who resist change, and use their organizations to resist change effectively.
  • The for-profit education sector is the newest, and the forces resisting change are the least well organized there.
  • SO the for-profit education sector can and will lead higher ed into identifying and recognizing effective education techniques.
In this scenario, the people who are personally profiting in the non-profit education world -- the teachers and advisers and admins and APs like you and me -- are the major impediment to education that works.

Here at PCC, the Learning Assessment Council has adopted a strategy that goes against the smart and idealistic claims of Peter P. Smith. We think that faculty and CC staff can serve to drive a change to more effective education, not just stand in the way. We have charged YOU with crafting assessment strategies to see how you can meet student needs ever better. Still, I can see why Peter P. Smith has placed his bets against us. People who have benefited from the ways things have been done for a long time are quite often the most resistant to changing them. This phenomenon can be observed in industries and organizations across all sectors and around the world, as we have all scrambled to catch up with the changes we have witnessed the last two decades.

Life is changing in Higher Ed.... Help shape how PCC responds to the new demands. Get active in your SAC's program/discipline assessment project! Our students -- and the world that needs their skills -- will be the beneficiaries....

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