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Michael Hiltzik: Academia and the profit motive

July 2, 2010 |  9:59 pm

The rise of the publicly traded for-profit university has led quite properly to questions about where the student's welfare ranks among the priorities of these institutions.

Spokespersons for companies such as the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University maintain that the student comes first and foremost. Not everyone agrees. Margaret Reiter, a former California deputy attorney general, told a Washington hearing convened not long ago by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) of her experience pursuing Corinthian Schools Inc. over what she said was a "persistent pattern of unlawful conduct" that looked awfully like fraud.

"The problem is not just a few bad apples," she told Harkin. What she told me was that in her experience, the abuses of the proprietary school industry "are among the most egregious, widespread and persistent over time."

It wouldn't be fair to tar the entire industry with one brush, and it may be the case that for-profit universities offer students opportunities they can't find elsewhere. But as my Sunday column observes, public college systems should tread very carefully when cutting deals with this industry so they don't look like they're giving the proprietary schools a seal of approval. Does the California Community Colleges' deal with Kaplan cross that line?

The column begins below.

It’s not unusual for government agencies with budget problems to start outsourcing services to private industry.

Computer maintenance, prison management, landscaping — all are among the services that state or local bureaucrats have handed off to private firms over the years.

What about college education? It turns out that California is trying to outsource our public higher education system to the for-profit college industry. What is surprising is that this is happening without any evidence that the affected students would be well served.

The issue has been cast into high relief by a two-year agreement struck last year between Jack Scott, the chancellor of the California Community Colleges, and Kaplan University, an aggressively marketed institution that does most of its pedagogy online.

Read the whole column.

-- Michael Hiltzik