Profit And The Public Good

A common lament about higher education is that it has become more of a private good than a public one, with students as consumers and colleges as businesses focused on hawking their product. But that model won’t cut it anymore, at least not for the nation’s largest regional accreditor, which in January redefined what an institution’s philosophical bottom line should be.

“We felt it was important to make a statement — that education is a public good,” said Sylvia Manning, president of the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

As a result, the commission included language describing how colleges must first serve the public — rather than themselves or outside interests — as part of its updated criteria for accreditation. The document lays out standards of quality that colleges must meet to earn accreditation or have it reaffirmed, which is required every 10 years.

That language reads: “The institution’s educational responsibilities take primacy over other purposes, such as generating financial returns for investors, contributing to a related or parent organization or supporting external interests.”

The commission's reaffirmation process is also getting a test, as a commission review team last month recommended a sanction of probation for the University of Phoenix, the nation’s biggest university. According to a corporate filing from the Apollo Group, which is Phoenix’s holding company, what tripped up the university in its bid for reaccreditation was the site team’s belief that Phoenix lacks autonomy from Apollo. (Note: This paragraph has been updated to correct an earlier version, which stated that the new criteria were used in Phoenix's recent accreditation review. HLC officials say that is not the case.)

The university, which produces 90 percent of Apollo’s revenue, also failed to meet aspects of a supplemental “minimal standards” document, the team found. But all of the identified concerns relate to the university’s administrative structure and governance, Apollo said.

The university has become more autonomous since its last HLC review, which was in 2002, company officials said. For example, the university’s president, William Pepicello, created his own, independent cabinet about two years ago.

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