Published on 2013/06/12

Commoditization, For-Profit Institutions and the Value of Higher Education

Commoditization, For-Profit Institutions and the Value of Higher Education
There is more to education than simply moving graduates into paid work, but as for-profit institutions dominate more space in the marketplace institutions are being forced to shift their focus largely to preparing the future workforce.

Higher education has been moving toward a commoditization model for its degree and curricular offerings for a number of years. We are dealing with the deliberate transformation of the educational process into commodity form, that is, something created, grown, produced or manufactured for the purpose of commercial transaction or exchange. Proponents of human capital theory see this transformation as desirable and support such phenomena as student demand for employment skills, private investment (corporations and corporate-affiliated foundations) in higher education, federal government policies such as Science, Technology. Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and a reprioritizing of state funding for public higher education. Governors in Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Texas have called for higher education funding that focuses on job creation and growth. In January, for example, Governor Patrick McCrory (North Carolina) said he would push for legislation that bases state colleges’ and universities’ funding on post-graduation employment rather than on enrollment.

“I’m looking at legislation right now – in fact, I just instructed my staff yesterday to go ahead and develop legislation – which would change the basic formula in how education money is given out to our universities and our community colleges. It’s not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs,” McCrory said on a radio interview.[1]

He also called into question the value of publicly supporting liberal arts education after the host made a joke about gender studies courses at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.” [2]

The growth of the for-profit higher education sector, that now represents about 10 percent of all enrollments, has also promoted the commoditization model. From their beginning, for-profit colleges have focused their academic programs on the professional and career-oriented market. Degree programs in business, teacher education and health sciences, as well as certificates in highly specific job skill areas, have become their mainstay. Their high-profile, well-funded marketing appeals usually open with come-ons such as, “Interested in getting a well-paying job …” or, “Would you like to be a ____ but lack a degree,” and are geared entirely to students looking for employment opportunities and advancement. The for-profit colleges rarely develop or market programs in the humanities, social sciences or in expensive laboratory-based sciences. In addition, a number of for-profit colleges offer fully-online programs convenient for adult learners who traditionally have been the student market most interested in professional and career programs.

The growth of the for-profits has forced a number of colleges and universities in the non-profit sector to expand and develop their own professional and career programs. For decades, the planning and fiscal strategies of many non-profit colleges and universities were to offer a wide variety of programs appealing to a diverse and growing student population. It was common for the professional programs in business, education and health areas to serve as the “cash cows” that subsidized other programs in the liberal arts and sciences. In recent years, traditional, non-profit colleges and universities have been directing even more resources to professional and career programs, frequently at the expense of liberal arts and sciences. In the extreme, some public and tuition-driven colleges have developed schools and colleges designed and required to operate as self-sufficient entities similar to for-profit institutions. The University of Maryland University College and Western Governors University are among those that operate on a self-sustaining, for-profit model.

What does all of this mean for students? Clearly, we are losing sight of what constitutes an educated person. In many cases, these consequences only become apparent years later.

Frances Bronet, dean of the school of architecture at the University of Oregon, who grew up intensely poor in Montreal, commented in a recent interview: “There was no way I could go to school and not have an immediate return,” she says. “My parents already thought that my going to school was an opportunity lost.” [3]

She went to McGill University and majored in architecture and engineering — technical fields she knew would pay. Now, one of her great regrets in life is not having gotten a broader liberal-arts education. “We talk about people being entrepreneurial, but it’s really about being creative, thoughtful and critical,” she has said.[4] When she taught at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, her department surveyed engineering alumni, asking about their education. Graduates who were a year out of college wished they had gotten more technical skills. Those who were five years out wanted more management skills. But alumni who were 10 to 20 years into their careers wanted more cultural literacy, “because they were traveling all over the world, working with cultures they never experienced before,”[5] she says.

Indeed, as lives and livelihoods extend beyond localness, it is the broadly-educated among us who have the tools to understand, adapt to and succeed in new environs, with diverse peoples and cultures.

– – – –


[1] Kevin Kiley, “Another Liberal Arts Critic,” Inside Higher Ed, January 30, 2013. Accessed at

[2] Mark Binker and Julia Sims, “McCrory: Fund higher education based on results,” WRAL, January 29, 2013. Accessed at

[3] Scott Carlson, “How to Assess the Real Payoff of a College Degree,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 22, 2013. Accessed at

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

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Readers Comments

Brian Bloom 2013/06/12 at 7:36 am

Well put, Mr. Picciano. I think of renowned universities such as Brown that have recognized the importance of offering a broad liberal arts education to all undergraduate students. While it may be difficult to identify ‘concrete’ skills developed as part of a liberal arts program (compared to something like accounting, where one either can or can’t balance the books upon graduation), there are categories of skills this type of education provides. Students are taught critical thinking, creative problem solving and adaptability — skills that are vital to their survival in the increasingly uncertain marketplace.

Ewan Philipps 2013/06/12 at 10:52 am

It’s possible to have courses that are less technical but that still have concrete learning outcomes that are beneficial for the individual and for society. To go back to the example of alumni desiring ‘cultural literacy’ — if you’re about to visit China for a business trip, I’m sure courses in business etiquette or the Chinese language are infinitely more helpful than, say, a course in the history of children’s literature in China.

I’m with Governor McCrory on this one: programs such as gender studies, classical literature and philosophy have no discernible outcomes and should either be dropped by the institution or paid for entirely by the student.

Anthony Picciano 2013/06/18 at 11:10 am


Thank you for your comment. I hear what you are saying but I believe that there is a place in a 4-year college for the classics, gender studies, the humanities and social sciences. Students who major in these areas have to understand that their career options might be limited compared to accounting, business administration, education, etc. But it seems to be that a classics major might make a first-rate social studies teacher. And a gender studies major might do well in social work, elementary school teaching, or some area of human services. They may need some additional graduate work but a worthwhile career is possible.


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