The Arizona Education Innovation Summit presented numerous challenges for attendees, including the one I wrote about last week – the challenge of accepting Education Innovation. Another challenge that attendees confronted was accepting that for-profit does not equal unethical or irresponsible in an education provider.
There are many reasons for the difficulty that many people have in seeing the positive in for-profit education. The first, of course, is that traditional American education has been principally public or private, nonprofit. We are unfamiliar with the alternative. That has been true in primary, secondary and higher education. The second reason has been the bad press received by many for-profit providers of higher education of late. Certainly some of that bad press is warranted.
However, my decades of experience in public, higher education leaves me willing to state unequivocally that public education does not equal high quality education. There are excellent public colleges and universities as there are excellent private nonprofit colleges and universities. But a nonprofit designation does not mean that graduation rates are necessarily high nor that graduates of nonprofits find jobs because of the corporate status of the school.
Elizabeth Purvis, CEO of Chicago International Charter Schools stated it most clearly when she charged that that making a distinction between for-profit and nonprofit schools was “actually a ridiculous argument.” “It’s about outcomes,” she went on to state at the Education Innovation Summit. Jonathan Hage, CEO of Charter Schools USA, went further. In describing the rapid growth of Charter Schools USA, Mr. Hage made the case that the schools of Charter Schools USA could not have succeeded so well if they had been nonprofit rather than for-profit. A nonprofit would have had to invest its resources in raising money, for example. Instead the for-profit corporate status made it possible to bring together business acumen and academic excellence.
Already we are seeing change in the collaboration and intertwining of for-profits and nonprofits. Traditional nonprofit colleges and universities are turning to for-profits for partnerships. Universities like Arizona State and the University of Maryland are finding that Pearson is a good partner for online education. Others are finding that AfterCollege is a good partner for job opportunities for graduates or that Insidetrack is a good partner for raising persistence rates. And K-12 has long turned to for-profits for texts; now they are turning to companies like Adaptive Curriculum for online support for students’ classroom learning experiences and as substitutes for texts.
The Education Innovation Summit is a celebration of the possible and a window on the future of education. I have frequently said that we will see a day when one will not ask whether the school or college is for-profit or nonprofit but whether it delivers on promised outcomes – of expected knowledge and skills from K-12 and post-graduate opportunities from higher education, e.g., jobs or advanced degrees for college graduates. It has become uncommon to ask whether a hospital is for-profit or nonprofit. We take the advice of our physician or we search out the increasing number of evaluations of hospital. I anticipate that, despite challenges to for-profit K-12 and for-profit higher education, we will see the question about corporate status no longer asked – and soon.