Blog: Frontline Report Proves the Importance of Perspective in Higher Education

This spring, wild glasses frames are a popular look for creative executives with a gift for flamboyance. Oh, and granting national television journalists unrestricted access to your business dealings and conference calls taken via beach chairs at your seaside home headquarters is another way to show your dynamism, too.

These were just two sideline tips I took away from last night’s PBS FRONTLINE documentary on for-profit education, called "College Inc." The hour-long show that critiqued the rise of career education to the critical regulatory juncture it faces today jumped in and out of the business life of Michael Clifford. Clifford is a renowned and sometimes flamboyant education entrepreneur who lives in San Diego. This wearer of Buddy Holly glasses has made his name by purchasing struggling traditional colleges and universities and turning them into for-profit institutions with an influx of cash, marketing genius and bold management skill.

I’m guessing he is likely not the first choice experts in the career education sector would select as the spokesperson for the industry, since he is so unorthodox. The show’s intent was to portray him as the bad guy, a former druggy-gone-born-again-Christian who never went to college and is therefore not capable of leading the school takeovers that have turned struggling colleges into billion-dollar enterprises. However, for almost half the show’s length, the producers were mesmerized by the access Clifford granted to his business dealings, the colleges he’s acquired, and by the for-profit education model in general.

Before the show aired, there were rumors circulating through various career college-based organizations that the show could be particularly damaging given the current regulatory environment and the gainful employment issue that is threatening to wash away a third of the sector’s size. The Career College Association (CCA) went so far as to issue talking points to member schools in anticipation of the report, which was wise and probably necessary since the show will likely spark significant follow-up debates.

Overall, the report was tinged with logical explanation about the sector that even managed to highlight its attributes – especially in describing what advancements it has made compared to traditional colleges and universities. And, it had its moments of melodrama, like when a transcript of an internal Argosy University email describing some recruiting tactics was read. In dramatic voiceover work, a reporter read a line from the message gaining intensity: “Dial, DI-al, DIAL!” This was by far the most tabloid moment in the report. Otherwise, it also presented the usual (and highly affective) anecdotes about students who’d felt they’d been burned by their educational experiences while flashing a few students on-screen who’d boasted about the new paths career education opened for them.

The last 20 minutes were the most damaging, as FRONTLINE did a fair job of building the career education industry into the next subprime mortgage meltdown. This was accomplished through testimony from the usual detractors on the traditional college side, including Barmak Nassarian, a lobbyist for colleges and universities; footage taken from Congressional hearings; and flags waving from buildings in Washington.

The FRONTLINE producers were apparently set on telling a story about the commercialization of higher education and letting viewers decide whether or not some boundaries have been overstepped. They were careful to shape viewers’ perspective throughout, at first explaining career education and its vibrant growth through John Sperling’s creation of a corporate approach to learning with the creation of University of Phoenix. And while they spent a great deal of time with Clifford, it was clear they were more likely to trust a more centered vantage point than his.

By their very nature, career colleges pose an interesting challenge to the traditional college realm. As former University of Phoenix Director Mark Defusco said in his on-camera interview, the four-year model “hasn’t had any real change in how it works in 500 years.” Career education has its innovation – it is adaptation to people’s needs – and that alone is a difference that most of its opponents can’t see through.

As I watched, I started to see all the people who were interviewed, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, as though they were in a circle facing the same issue, but standing at different angles, never coming at it the same way. No two people who appeared on camera would share the same perspective about the current higher education environment or its problems, the regulatory climate, or how to solve it (or if it needs solving). CCA President and CEO Harris Miller was right in protecting the sector’s role in reaching underserved audiences. The students who were burned: they are right to feel the way they do. You can tell he believes in what he’s saying, but Nassarian also gets paid to feel the way he does.

And then, there was Clifford. No matter what anyone might think about him, the openness he yielded to FRONTLINE was simply incredible. In a sector where executives do not often share trade secrets openly – especially not to the media – Clifford allowed journalists into his war room acquisition discussions about buying a new college, open access to administrators and students at his schools, access to Grand Canyon University and its server room that was handling thousands and thousands of students.

At one point, Clifford said that his ability to lead a college without having a degree himself was like the American dream. The show detailed his latest project, acquiring Patten University in Oakland, Calif. This one involves buying the regionally accredited school and merging it with a successful youth church he supports in Los Angeles, called the Dream Center. Again, the intention was to paint Clifford as a religious kook with so much financial success, he can play with colleges at will and turn prostitutes into college graduates. But that didn’t quite work, either. His dream may be unusual, but his story is really the dream that Americans have to believe in, and it’s dangerous to insinuate his motives are wrong.

What Clifford does best might not have anything to do with buying colleges, but instead creating intense discussions. You couldn’t watch last night’s FRONTLINE and not react. Those crazy glasses he wears clued me into the lenses some people see the issues through. Now if only everyone could share the same fashion sense.

Kevin Kuzma, Editor, Career College Central


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