My colleague Jon Becker sent me a story today about for-profit Grand Canyon’s (GCU) run in college sports. In it, Michael Reinrab, summarizes a recent GCU tournament run and the controversy around a for-profit college playing in a traditional not-for-profit sports league:
Maybe that’s true, and maybe it isn’t, because what makes Grand Canyon such an odd and perhaps unsettling story is also part of what’s enabled it to succeed so quickly: GCU is a Christian, for-profit university, one of the few for-profit universities in the country that has succeeded under that model. For-profit universities are generally viewed with scorn and derision, and not without reason; many of them are seen as nothing more than complex Ponzi schemes for their investors, easy targets for the late-night rants of satirical comedians. This is a source of ongoing rancor within the world of higher education, so much so that when GCU declared it was moving to Division I, the Pac-12 immediately filed a letter of protest, and insisted none of its teams would compete against Grand Canyon.
What I know about college sports could fit in my smallest purse. I know that my alma mater used to play in the CIAA league and no longer does. I don’t understand why or how but I do know that the tournament parties went to crap the minute that they did.
I may not know a lot about college sports but I know a little bit about how colleges become legitimate, or real and right and proper. I wrote a little thing about it once.
I’ve argued here before (I think) that probably the greatest thing for-profit colleges could do to scrub the designation “for-profit” of its negative connotation is to win a few sportsball championships. That’s how traditional not-for-profit colleges did it. There was a time when the idea of a residential college for wealthy young men was considered very strange (and also very effeminate). College sports “butched” up college and it also gave the millions who would never in a million years qualify for admission a fictive relationship with a system that is, by design, unequal.
The problem is that sportsball leagues are expensive. And, for-profits are in the business of keeping expenses low (or, at least project-able). That’s how you manage profit projections. What’s a for-profit college to do? Well, the University of Phoenix bought naming rights to a football stadium. That’s kind of like buying the Duke sweatshirt when you’ve never been to Duke. It’s a way to go. DeVry has for several years now supported Olympic athletes. GCU was interesting because it kept a significant investment in its predecessor’s residential campus even after it became for-profit. Most for-profit colleges do not have residential campuses. Residential campuses lend themselves well to sporting leagues. And sporting leagues are a way to recruit students and maybe even to move the needle on whether a for-profit college is a “real” college. Reinrab says it’s a hard row to hoe:
GCU’s president and CEO, Brian Mueller, is slowly attempting to move GCU back to non-profit status, both to save on tax bills and erase the stigma surrounding his school—only that’s not easy, given that GCU’s investors are profiting so greatly from a university whose enrollment has grown precipitously over the past several years. The latest plan had Mueller suggesting GCU may operate under a murky blend of non-profit operations and “an ongoing investment opportunity,” according to the Arizona Republic, but in the meantime, the school’s revenues continue to grow and enrollment continues to rise. And the basketball team’s success will surely only contribute to those phenomena.
Now, the question you may want to consider is how winning at sports games could mean more to the legitimacy of an educational institution than does education?