A recent spate of reports on private sector schools and colleges has come from media as diverse as Good Housekeeping and National Public Television. Some of the reports have been deliberately argumentative and provocative but based on unstated and sometimes biased assumptions – e.g., that private sector schools are not legitimate, that their use of marketing is wrong, and that for-profit status reduces quality of education. As a life-long academic, I am accustomed to argumentation and debate. But unstated assumptions hinder debate, and with it, the truth becomes harder to discern.
For example, the assumption of the legitimacy of private sector higher education is simply name-calling and unworthy of serious journalism. The U.S. has a long history of diversity in its higher education with traditional private schools, public schools, religious and secular schools. Quality of course varies across them, but it appears to be independent of whether an institution is public or private, secular or religious. And similarly, it is independent of whether an institution is a proprietary or traditional school.
Another assumption about private sector schools is that their use of marketing is wrong. Any parent with a high school junior who has taken the ACT or SAT is accustomed to marketing from traditional colleges and universities, including phone calls, catalogs, brochures etc. Some media just assume that marketing is wrong if done by a private sector or proprietary school and other media find some marketing acceptable but imply that private sector schools exceed some unstated but reasonable limitation on it. Having spent many years as an administrator in a public university, I can report that traditional higher education is very competitive and depends on a significant level on marketing – just like the private sector. Marketing is not per se wrong, but it would be wrong, I believe, in a market-based economy to set limits on marketing expenditures – for a traditional college or a private sector one.
Still another often-unstated assumption about private sector higher education is that for-profit status limits quality. I find this sort of argument almost perplexing. Perhaps it is because I view markets and competition as valuable contributors to increasing quality for customers – including student customers. As a college dean for more than a decade, I certainly believed that my competitors caused me to work hard for increased quality for students – and competitiveness for my college.
Despite false assumptions, there is a legitimate societal expectation for a quality education from both private sector schools and traditional ones. And private sector schools cannot shrink from their responsibilities – for admitting qualified, college-ready students, for compliance with government rules associated with recruiting, for quality of instructors and quality of instruction, and for communicating realistic expectations about the post-graduation job market and certifications required.