How I Ended Up Constructing An Elite For-Profit College

It is a thought exercise. It is one I have resisted but that my advisers have pushed me to tangle with. I brought it up to Kevin Kinser recently on Twitter and he said he would read ramblings on trying to reconcile quality and profit. It has also be presented to me as a money making venture, but I digress into too much of my business on that point.

I have talked about prestige and for-profit colleges before. Economic models dominate the study of for-profit colleges. Economic models aren’t fond of fuzzy social constructs like prestige but there is no way around how significant and fundamental prestige is to the functioning of our higher education system. By trying to theoretically construct the conditions under which some for-profit colleges are more prestigious than others I do several things. First, I approach this as a sociological object of inquiry. Believe it or not, that’s still a novel idea in the literature. Second, by teasing apart conditions under which variation in prestige currently exists we can begin to think about interventions and empirical testing of outcomes that account for the importance of prestige. I can imagine everything from examining the signaling power of some for-profit credentials as compared to others in the hiring or graduate school process or regional versus national labor market returns. Third, it is just an enduring paradox: must we take for granted that profit cannot co-exist with prestige? It doesn’t seem to be the case in other national contexts. Perhaps our issue isn’t with profit-taking but with a loosely coupled system of higher education that derives its social authority from its opacity and decentralization?

Or, I could find that there is no set of existing conditions under which a for-profit college could establish prestige. That might lend some credence to concerns about them offering certain types of degrees (PhDs in clinical psychology continue to worry me late at night). It could be that we need to discuss interventions that limit the institutional reach of for-profit colleges?

Here’s a rough, rough draft of my theorizing so far. It’s open to engagement and feedback but not theft or borrowing. Ahem. I am particularly interested in crowdsourcing on variables. The plan is to assemble all 60+ cases, run the QCA and see what I get.

It’s a start. Or an ending. Or something.


ETA: It occurred to me that I better mention that I wrote this in one sitting. There’s no editing. I’m not even sure I read it again before sharing it. Please take that into account because pedantics might get you cut.
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4 thoughts on “How I Ended Up Constructing An Elite For-Profit College

  1. You’re asking a great set of questions. I offered some thoughts on IHE about “purity” of mission in the context of a sacred/profane split, with the idea that anyone who’s in it for the money will have more to prove. Not at all at odds with anything you’ve written, just another angle to consider.

  2. Hello! I’m in a completely different field, but this is something I have thought about.

    It strikes me that “prestige” is a bit like the problem of primitive accumulation in capitalism — a question of origins and how the system began.

    Perhaps the oldest universities have prestige because they started when only elites were getting college degrees. That generation connected the next with opportunities, and so on, and the institution built up a good reputation over time, based mainly on its social network of alumni. It would be difficult for a new college to enter the system now and work up to the same level.

    On the other hand, some newer universities have become prestigious — like RISD, for instance, which was founded in the late 19th century and is now a foremost institution for fine arts. Is it easier to achieve prestige if you’re aiming at a niche audience and doing something new that the current universities don’t do? Instead of trying to mimic established universities, the for-profits could embark on a more experimental, different course that would make the old ones look out-of-date.

    Anyway, your blog is brilliant! I’m going to be a loyal reader for sure.

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