Over the past few years, lawmakers, consumer advocates and others have been raising questions about whether for-profit colleges provide their students with a quality education. A look at the history books indicates concerns about the schools’ role in higher education date back centuries. As early as the 1780s, proprietary…
Over the past few years, lawmakers, consumer advocates and others have been raising questions about whether for-profit colleges provide their students with a quality education. A look at the history books indicates concerns about the schools’ role in higher education date back centuries.
As early as the 1780s, proprietary, or for-profit, higher education programs pushed some of America’s first medical schools to water down their graduation requirements, according to “Diploma Mills: How For-Profit Colleges Stiffed Students, Taxpayers and the American Dream.” At that time, states didn’t require doctors to have a degree to practice medicine and students hoping to become doctors could simply shadow one for a certain amount of time, pay them with their labor and ultimately become doctors themselves, said A.J. Angulo, the book’s author and a professor at Winthrop University who specializes in the history of higher education.
In that environment, some of the nation’s first medical schools, which were affiliated with prestigious colleges, felt pressure to shorten their programs to compete for students, Angulo writes in the book.
“They’re losing students and they see that for-profits are offering next to nothing in terms of curriculum,” Angulo said in an interview.
By the early to mid 19th century, professional groups began to question the efficacy of the apprenticeship system because it didn’t provide future doctors and lawyers with a broad-based education, Angulo said. For example, a student could shadow a doctor for six months and never witness a surgery.
“Nobody really felt comfortable with the apprenticeship system but that’s what we had,” he said. That questioning ultimately led to states requiring that lawyers and physicians have degrees to practice. “It takes legislation to actually require people to graduate from accredited institutions before these schools can claim you have to come to us now,” he said.
This episode is just one of many that illustrates one of the main claims Angulo makes in the book, which is that historically, for-profit education often threatens academic and professional standards. That’s because the components of a quality education, such as highly trained faculty, are often expensive, and for-profit colleges are concerned with reducing costs often at the expense of standards, he said.
Many of the critics of today’s for-profit schools argue that the institutions are too focused on maximizing revenue at the expense of students. They lure students and their federal financial aid dollars with promises of degrees and jobs that will help the boost their incomes, but the promises often don’t come to fruition, these people say.
Angulo notes that the modern era isn’t the first time advocates have had such complaints about proprietary education.
“There’s been a long history of for-profits having difficulty, and I’m talking great difficulty living up to the standards that professional organizations demand,” he said. “That’s not new, it’s kind of an old story and we seem to forget. If we are surprised moving forward that for-profits failed to live up to standards then, egg on our face, we should know this story.”
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