It was in mid-January that Richard Arum’s and Josipa Roksa’s book, Academically Adrift, was published with their identification of the central problem of colleges and universities – “limited learning” for undergraduates. And it was less than two weeks ago in mid February that The Chronicle of Higher Education published the expected reaction of many faculty members to it. I admit that, like many of those faculty members, I read closely the methodology of the study; my notes in the margins of the book indicate as much. My reaction to the book differs, however, in that I did not dismiss the findings for methodological reasons. I judged the method as fundamentally sound; moreover, the findings were too consistent with my own observations over 35 years as faculty member and administrator to be fundamentally in error.
I saw in the book’s findings and analysis not only a path toward improvement of the undergraduate learning experience but an explanation for the inherent capacity of the for-profit sector in overcoming “the problem of limited learning.” Unfortunately it also offered an explanation for why traditional higher education may be unable to take advantage of the path to improvement. The authors of Academically Adrift observe that traditional higher education is characterized by faculty with little or no teacher training, faculty who work essentially independently from one another, faculty who infrequently interact with undergraduate students, and faculty who face three fundamental distractions from undergraduate education: the emphasis on research and scholarship, the license for consulting and professional activities, and the extent of specialized teaching at the graduate level. They also make clear other challenges of traditional universities, including their focus on the students’ social experience.
In light of the challenges that traditional universities face in improving the quality of the undergraduate learning experience, why, then, does this analysis by Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa indicate an advantage or even an inherent capacity for the for-profits in overcoming “the problem of limited learning” for undergraduates? The answer lies in the very structure of for-profits and their relationship to faculty members. For-profits typically do not provide tenure to full-time faculty. Along with tenure’s association with academic freedom, it is also associated with a very high level of autonomy for the individual faculty member. For-profits hire faculty for the most part to develop curricula and teach. They have a demonstrated history of introducing coordinated and specific curricula that are much less subject to the variance that comes from the relatively more autonomous faculty of a traditional university. With their teaching focus, for-profits are, for the most part, not paying faculty members for their research contributions, and their expectations for faculty performance are confined to teaching rather than the other professional activities of traditional faculty members that Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa describe as distracting.
The advantages of for-profits in improving students’ learning are not automatic, despite the inherent ones that come from their differential structure. Although there are examples of for-profits that offer the social environment of a traditional school, e.g., Grand Canyon University, most are more like the Art Institutes or Brown Mackie College of the Education Management Group or Apollo’s University of Phoenix and Western International University; the educational experience is the focus – not the social experience with its potential distractions. For-profits that are serious about overcoming “the problem of limited learning” can insist that faculty receive teacher training and development; they can incorporate pedagogy that embeds high expectations and more frequent faculty-student interaction, and they can more easily modify curriculum based on feedback from student performance in a comprehensive assessment process that has strong feedback loops. In taking advantage of their structure and the opportunities that arise from it, for-profits have the potential in their student-focused environment to deliver what parents and adult learners want of higher education in the knowledge and skills that enable and prepare students for citizenship and careers.