A Problem with the Privatization of Public Higher Education

Last weekend, I attended the annual AFTPa Higher Education Conference. Of course, the Supreme Court’s recent Friedrichs decision was a primary focus, but there were a number of interesting conversations about local issues across the Commonwealth and the status of relevant legislation in Harrisburg. In a panel discussion about the future of community colleges in Pennsylvania, one fleeting comment caught my attention.

In a presentation about the changes she had seen in a particular community college, a retired faculty member talked about the increased recruitment of international students for the purpose of generating revenue. She fleetingly mentioned a private company that the college had contracted with to provide recruitment and “support” services, bringing international (primarily Chinese, it seems) students to the college and providing “coaching,” “advising” and “transfer” services oriented toward helping them transfer to four-year institutions.

I have encountered this company before, but they had a slightly different focus at that time. Then, they were looking to basically take over local community college honors programs. In doing so, they would charge the students enrolled in honors at the college a fee (generally just below their Pell grant eligibility) to participate in honors, and the students would receive coaching and transfer counseling services in exchange.

We refused their offer to come in to our school, and there were a variety of reasons for doing so. For one, they were offering services we were (or should have been) already providing. We saw no value added.

This is one of the larger problems I have with the privatization effort currently underway in higher education. These are services the institution should be providing. It’s a basic part of a contemporary institution of higher education. In the case of community colleges, in particular, these public institutions should be providing services to the public, and that includes providing the requisite coaching, advising, and counseling services at educational institutions. That is what it means to be a public institution.

In privatizing these services, we are transforming them into profit sources. In particular, this company’s model relied on using student financial aid money to enrich the founders and investors. This approach to “service provision” treats institutions of higher education as conduits through which taxpayer dollars can be moved into investor pockets. It’s replacing public service with private profit. It’s a grift.

There were other problems we had with this company, but now it has moved into other areas of “service provision.” In this case, they are colluding with educational managers, desperate for revenue in an era of declining enrollment and public support, to bring international students—with the resources to pay the significantly higher tuition they are charged, of course–to these institutions. They are often recruited to institutions lacking adequate resources to provide the necessary support, though.

That’s where the company comes back in! Now, they can use their “coaches” and “advisors” to provide the support colleges can’t. Win-win, right? The college gets more money without having to invest it in services for the students providing that money, and the company providing those services gets a nice little profit.

But what about the students, their families, and the community the college is supposed to serve? Students and their families are paying extra for services the institution should already be providing. Not only are they paying extra for the services, they’re paying extra in order to fill investors’ pockets. In the case of the honors takeover, taxpayers were also doing so. Privatization isn’t a “cost effective solution” it’s a mechanism of wealth transfer.

And, because of colleges’ new focus on providing space (and other resources, like housing) for international students who can pay for it, they are diverting resources from students living in their communities, particularly the neediest members of those communities.. Many of these community members may be international themselves, but refugees or immigrants without the financial means to pay a private recruiter/networker. A central feature of community colleges is supposed to be their embeddedness within communities. Shifting the focus to revenue-generating students outside the community means providing a lower level of service to the community. Hell, that’s not just true for community colleges, it’s even true for the University of California system!

The problem is the rejection of the public. Privatization will always favor those with the ability to pay. Public institutions, and particularly community colleges, exist to serve the public. By privatizing the services these institutions should be providing, we are limiting access to them. We are rejecting our own mission…and we’re helping corrupt people get rich as we do so.

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