Blog: Changing Minds About For-Profit Schools

By Kevin Kuzma, Online Editor

Sometime in the last century, changing the mind became one of the most offensive transgressions a person can commit.

In America, this most likely came about in the political realm, when those elected to office (or their staff people) realized that choosing a path that led to a mistake in human capital, enormous sums of money, or both could cost them dearly with voters.

The most egregious loss of human capital in our times is war, and so perhaps this disturbing trend stems back to World War II or Vietnam. Certainly Vietnam was a lost war, and it had its own price tag attributed to it beyond the lives of thousands of service members (58,000 lives according to www.digitalhistory.uh.edu.) The financial toll, if it matters by comparison, was $686 billion as noted by CBS News.

That war’s justification on the government’s behalf might have been the starting point for sticking with a direction when stark reality showed glaring errors. Wherever its genesis came from, the fact that changing the mind is sometimes consciously not done when it should clearly be an option is a disturbing trend that continues to this day. And, that has implications for the academic world and our personal relationships, too.

The people consider a leader changing his or her mind a sign of weakness, not learning. We see it as a mistake, not a correction. The person whose thoughts are given to one idea at first and then chooses another – let’s assume based on cause and effect they can determine for themselves – is “uncertain”, a poor guide, whose word is worth nothing. Therefore in modern American politics when you embark on an initiative that fails miserably, you charge onward, despite all signs that a mistake is a mistake, and everyone in the arena can see the flub plainly for themselves.

In recent election campaigns, we’ve seen the world “flip-flopper” applied to John Kerry and Mitt Romney. Kerry was practically branded with the term. His opposition saw that the word brought negative connotations to his shifts in stances on different policies.

But probably the most prominent recent examples are the Obama administration’s big industry bailouts and expenditures that have failed to resurrect the automotive and banking industries, and done little to create real jobs. But this is the course that was chartered. Spend big. At every turn, the president will refer to those investments as key positive moments in breathing life into the economy. He might believe he’s right in spite of empirical evidence that proves the opposite.

We’ve seen this one-direction-baring-reality mentality in the higher education landscape, too. Obama’s goal for the US to boast more college graduates than any other nation by 2020 is clearly hampered by the Department of Education’s “gainful employment” rule. The war on the “for-profit” education industry continues despite the struggles that traditional colleges and universities are facing in graduating students and the obvious value the sector brings in providing graduates to the US labor force.

Rather than withdrawing the rule for this reason and others – chief among them that gainful employment is discriminatory – instead we see the rule watered down. The requirements are made a little less stringent. The government must press forward because turning back would be seen in a negative vein. We live, now, in an environment in which shifting from one perspective to another is viewed as a step backward. While it might be, that doesn’t necessarily make it the wrong decision.

The issue here is not with one faulty rule, though. The public has made up its mind on career colleges. According to the Harris Poll, more than half of Americans (57%) agree that for-profit colleges universities do not care how many of their students graduate, only how many enroll and pay tuition. At the same time, a similar number (55%) agree that for-profit schools serve an important need.

The industry has debated for years about whether or not a national PR campaign could help focus the American public on the positive aspects of career education. While I obviously support our schools’ mission, the critical question is whether or not the American public can change its mind. The Harris Poll tells me that a change in perception is a possibility.

If we don’t allow ourselves space to change our thoughts and potentially contradict ourselves, we create an environment in which being wrong or reacting to new information and forming a different opinion are unacceptable. If our leaders are too afraid to admit when they’ve diverged from their original stance on an issue, they may continue to lead us to ruin.

We’re too far into the new regulatory climate to see any serious change in direction. The current administration and those who believe that “for-profit” and “education” simply don’t go together are not going to back off their charge now. But the people – the people might see things a different way.

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