Thursday, November 1, 2007

For-Profit Education is Just Like Any Other Business?

There has been some controversy over University of Irvine at California and Capella University's agreement that Capella will pay UCI $500 for each student that transfers to Capella University...a marketing fee, consulting fee, cost reimbursement fee, fee split, bounty, kickback, depending on what how you feel about such arrangements. UCI is a public, non-profit institution and Capella is a for-profit private university.

I got into a vigorous discussion/debate with another "blogger" as to how this situation should be treated in an online encyclopedia. That person felt that because the US Department of Education's declared that such an agreement was legal, it was therefore ethical, as if its legality precluded any inquiry into its morality. I pointed out, that credit card companies can legally charge 20% interest rates to their customers, and banks can legally charge $35.00 for overdrafts, and mortgage companies can legally offer home financing with ARMs loans which contain time bomb rates which ultimately explode on the unsuspecting users. The legality of these practices have not precluded or eclipsed discussions on their morality.

When I pointed out, that, as the article cited, there are those who view such an arrangement as making the student a commodity, an object to be traded upon and profited from. This person cheerfully replied that if the agreement treated students as a commodity that was what they are. Students were recruited to attend certain schools, both non-profit and profit, to pay tuition and spend money. Thus they were a "source of production and income." Well, I do not agree with such a statement and see it as one of the biggest problems with for-profit education. They see students as merely commodities and nothing else.

I feel such practices as a school paying another school to refer it students as a conflict of interest and is not ethical. I do not see students as commodities but as consumers of a very valuable and special service, to wit, education. Education is not your ordinary consumable product, like a car, or a sofa. My opinion is that access to education is on a par with access to medical care and legal services. There is a duty that is owed to a patient by a doctor and duty that is owed to client by a lawyer and a duty that is owed to a student by an adviser or school. I feel that they are morally equivalent. Of course money enters into the equation and there are conflicts of interest in the law and medical fields but it is frowned upon and when they are discovered they are news and controversial unlike what might happen in any other "business" where there is no particular duty owed to the "consumer". Education, like health care and legal services is a quality of life issue. It is the key to economic advancement which contributes much to the prosperity of society. When students are treated as "marks" or commodities or persons to profit from, I don't believe that's ethical. Offering kickbacks, marketing fees, referrals or whatever you want call them, has a great potential to obscure the true role of advisers which is to advise the student for the student's sake, not for how much money or profit can be made from them. The practice raises the distinct possibility that students are getting advice which is more dependent on how much money can be gained from them rather that what is truly in their best interest.

My "antagonist" was not completely deterred and stated that paying a school is merely a marketing fee and is a good business practice. Now if Capella was running some other kind of business, maybe it paying another school to refer students to it, would not be controversial, however, they are running a school which is funded by money from the federal government aka the tax payers, so they are going to suffer more scrutiny than a car lot dealership and rightly so. A good business practice for Mercedes Benz is not not necessarily a good business practice for a school!

And that's the problem, many of these for-profit schools are just businesses spewing out diplomas, certificates and degrees like so many cars and interested only in profit with no regard for the desires of the customer. Moreover, they are profiting not only at the expense of the student but at the expense of society and the federal government which underwrites their forays into designer education.