While the thrust-and-parry between the federal government and for-profit colleges grows more furious, the state of Maryland has decided to leave nothing to chance by tabling its own version of the "gainful employment" rule currently being debated in Washington D.C. An article appearing in the March 21, 2011 edition of The Baltimore Sun reports that "the General Assembly [of Maryland] is targeting the lightly regulated industry with proposed penalties aimed at ensuring that its schools live up to promises made to Maryland students."
In this effort Maryland is anything but a renegade. "If the bill passes," the article continues, "Maryland would join the federal government and a growing list of states in the effort to gain a regulatory handle on an exploding sector of higher education."
Maryland and other states propose to remove the "lightly" qualification from the regulation to which such for-profit colleges as University of Phoenix and Kaplan University (two institutions named in the article) must submit. "The legislation would require for-profit schools to pay into 'guaranty' funds that could be used to reimburse students if the schools either fold or fail to live up to their contracts," the article reports.
It would give the Maryland Higher Education Commission power to levy $5,000 fines on for-profit schools if they violate state regulations. It also would prohibit all institutions of higher education from offering financial bonuses to recruiters based on the number of students they enroll.
Tough as these measures seem, they redress the worst excesses of for-profits' current practices. Specifically, the proposed Maryland legislation "is meant to address one of the most prevalent criticisms of for-profit schools -- that they are diploma factories with little interest in finding students who are good fits academically and financially."
When it comes to an epic struggle such as the one currently going on between legislators and for-profits there lurks the temptation to polarize the contingent into good guys and bad guys. Before we rush to slap black hats on the heads of for-profit institutions, however, we should pause to remind ourselves that such absolute statuses mask many subtle yet nonetheless significant differences.
One school that gives the lie to prevailing stereotypes is Western Governors University (WGU). A March 21, 2011 Bloomberg Businessweek article reports that WGU offers real value, especially to students for whom traditional residential matriculation is simply not an option. WGU charges "reasonable tuition -- just $2,890 for a six-month term." This reasonable tuition rate is coupled with "an academic model that lets students accelerate their completion of the degree based on prior subject knowledge."
Indeed, WGU has marketed a formidable higher-educational product, one which promises to set the trend for future postsecondary learning. "Western Governors University may not be a household name yet, but it is attracting students ... to its virtual doors in droves," the article continues.
Founded in 1997 by 19 U.S. governors from Western states and based in Salt Lake City, the university has grown from nearly 500 students eight years ago to nearly 24,000 students today. It offers more than 50 degrees in teaching, business, information technology, and nursing, from bachelor's programs to MBAs. The school's nationally accredited teaching programs are the most popular, drawing nearly 50 percent of students, followed by the business college, which accounts for about 26 percent of enrollment, according to the school's 2010 annual report. The virtual institution has grown at a rapid clip since it first gained regional accreditation in 2003, with enrollment increasing 30 percent each year, the school says.
WGU presents an instance where the purpose shapes the product. "The online institution was designed by the governors to be an affordable alternative to state colleges and for-profit online universities," the article reports. "It's geared toward older students -- the average age of a WGU student is 36 -- who did not have the time, money, or resources to complete a college education in the conventional manner. Rural, first-generation, low-income, and minority students from all 50 states make up the majority of the school's population."
WGU has obviously demonstrated to the rest of the industry that profits and principles need not stand at daggers-drawn. Any savvy for-profit college ought to seek ways to tweak its business model to resemble more closely that of WGU. Not only would such an industry-wide shift serve the interests of students, it would make federal legislators' intervention completely unnecessary.