Peter P. Smith is Senior Vice President for Academic Strategies and Development at Kaplan Higher Education. Before joining the company, in 2007, he helped to create and then run the Community College of Vermont, was founding president of California State University-Monterey Bay, and represented Vermont in Congress. His new book, Harnessing America's Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning (Jossey-Bass), is out this month.
Mr. Smith spoke with The Chronicle of Higher Education February 7th, 2010 about the differences between career colleges and the rest of higher education, and the challenges that for-profit institutions face.
Q. What has surprised you the most about the for-profit sector?
A. In a more traditional model, you spend an enormous amount of time on the process of how you make decisions and the politics of making those decisions in a faculty-governance environment. That controls what you can do, how much you can achieve, and limits your ability to go after practices that aren't working as well as they should. We have some of those conventions [at Kaplan], but the environment is much clearer and much less obstructed. If there is something that isn't working, the support and the encouragement to find out why—and do something about it—is enormous.
Q. For-profits face questions over the rigor of the curriculum, the aggressiveness of their recruiting practices, and whether a degree from Kaplan or DeVry or Phoenix is going to carry the same weight as a degree from the state university. What can they do to overcome these concerns?
A. It's a very fair question, and it's one we obviously live with and think about every day. The answer is, stay at it. I've done this particular thing three times in my career. In the case of the Community College of Vermont, we had no campus and no permanent faculty. We were using experts from the community, and we were outcomes-based. Our proposition that you could do that based on community resources was extremely controversial in Vermont and in other places.
Q. But are there some legitimate questions about the rigor of the curriculum and the recruiting?
A. I have seen nothing to suggest that there are legitimate questions. I think much of that is elitism with a new mask on its face.
Q. But has the industry done this yet?
A. Well, we're working on it. There's no doubt in my mind that some form of what I said is where it's going.
Q. Is there something unseemly about an industry that makes hefty profits largely through subsidies of the federal government?
A. I don't apologize for that at all. Pell Grants and loan programs were set up to allow students to choose what was best for them. Our institutions take no hidden social investment from the state or the federal government. We pay taxes on the earnings we have. So it is a different economic model, I'll make no bones about that. But the value of it is, it allows us to be much more flexible, so we can respond in terms of a new curriculum, we can respond to changes in the marketplace. We can respond to evolving student needs. ...
Q. Do you think there is this tendency in the public—or it may even be in the press or with policy makers—to distrust the idea of a profit in education?
A. Some do because it's different. And don't get me wrong: I think our sector owes what all the sectors owe, which is increasingly higher transparent quality that we can talk about and defend and be proud of. And I think whether I am a president of a community college or a state university, I have the same requirement.
Q. At public and private colleges, traditions like free inquiry and shared governance are core values. Without those principles, can for-profit colleges really serve society as well as traditional colleges?
A. Absolutely. People will say you can't teach job skills and intellectual inquiry in the same course. I would say that's an utterly false dichotomy. And if you ask the question, Do we serve the society as well, I would say yes. But I don't think we serve society the same way, and I think that's OK.
Q. You say the sector is moving toward quality, and transparency about quality. But its business model is very growth-focused, and that also leads to a lot of pressure on recruiting.
A. Well, it goes to the heart of the difference. Let me say when I was funded at the Community College of Vermont, and when I was funded by the state at California State University in Monterey, or when [former George Washington University president] Steve Trachtenberg gave me a budget at the Graduate School of Education at GW, I recruited aggressively to a number because that was what I was told we could afford. And if I went over the number, there was some slip because you could put an extra three people in every classroom, and the tuition was good to have. But you couldn't double the number, because then you wouldn't have enough teachers or classrooms. So you're recruiting, again, on a scarcity model.
Q. To a capacity?
A. That's right. To a set capacity, which can be exceeded to some extent, and you want to get the best students you can because that's good for you, and then you're going to have a few more, and that's how that whole system works, and we all know it. It is a way of looking at the business—and it is the way to look at that business because that's the way that business operates, and it is a business. I mean, when athletic directors get $4-million a year, I don't want to hear it's not a business, OK? It's a business. ... I don't understand what's wrong about trying to find those people, tell them about the opportunity, and encourage them to come back to school. I don't get it. Now, if people engage in an inappropriate activity, if people do bad things, that's bad.
Q. Well, there's a difference between college counseling and selling, and I think that's where the sector probably takes the most heat.
A. Well, I would invite you to go on a recruiting mission with an athletic director or an admissions counselor at any state university to the high schools and to the community colleges. Now, they're filling to a set number, right?. When I went to the Head Start Center in Barton, Vermont, in 1971 and sat down with Head Start mothers and said, "We're going to do this, and we want you to come to school," I didn't think that was a bad thing. I knew it was a good thing, and if I hadn't done it, they never would have gotten to school.
Q. But you were recruiting them for a program that wasn't going to cost them very much money and wasn't going to put them in a great deal of debt.
A. Well, sure. But take any of the major states. I don't see higher-education budgets getting bigger. I see them getting smaller, and I see costs being shifted to students. So I need to bring us back to the fundamental box we're in, which is that's happening, and I don't see anything in the next five to seven to 10 years [that] is going to change it. And the trend for 40 years has been toward funding students and letting them make their own choice. ...
(From the February 7, 2010 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education, article by Goldie Blumenstyk.)
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