For-profit institutions of higher education are viewed with disdain by many in higher education. I find them intriguing. Tracking the growing enrollment patterns of Latinos in higher education, it is also obvious that Latinos are more open to the opportunities presented by these institutions than other groups.
As a policy analyst, I was very aware of the disparaging way many researchers and leaders spoke of for-profit institutions. But I had never had any direct experiences with these colleges until I received a letter in the mail a few years ago. It was a one-pager with information in English on one side and Spanish on the other. What a simple and yet highly effective approach, I thought. While most Latino college students do speak English, having information in both Spanish and English meant students could share the same information with their parent or spouse—who might not be fluent in English—to make joint college decisions.
What intrigued me even more was the content of the letter sent. The letter told me four things: 1) they wanted me as a student; 2) they were willing to work around my schedule; 3) they would help me get financial aid to pay for college; and, 4) they would help me get a job upon completion. In many ways, the clear-cut message in the letter addressed every issue I might have had about going to college—especially as a first-time college-goer. In an era where the college application, selection, and financial aid process seems to get more complicated and onerous every day, who wouldn’t see this as a welcome message?
Proponents of market-based institutions (a term with less political baggage) assert that these colleges are making education—and the success education brings—more accessible to a more diverse and nontraditional group of students by creating a flexible learning environment for students. Because they strive to both attract new students and be market-competitive, it is assumed for-profit colleges can be more responsive to meeting students’ needs than public institutions already challenged by limited capacity and constrained resources.
Critics of market-based institutions worry that knowledge is compromised when colleges are motivated by profits. Regardless, it is clear from the data that Latino students consider these institutions viable higher education options. In the last six years alone, the number of Hispanics enrolled in for-profit institutions doubled. Today, more than 10 percent of Hispanic undergraduates are enrolled in these colleges, and 19 percent of associate degrees and 5 percent of bachelor degrees awarded to Hispanics are from for-profit institutions.
While I will not quibble with either proponents or critics, what I find most intriguing about for-profit institutions is their student-centric approach to higher education. Rather than demanding that students adapt to their institutions, they are invested in making higher education work for the students. Sure, they have a profit incentive, but is this so different from institutions that prioritize prestige, research funding, or college sports over student success?
While I know market-based institutions are not the sole answer for Latino students seeking to access and complete a college degree, I do think we could learn from the student-centric approach of for-profit institutions. Public institutions could have sent a letter with the same message I received. Students want to know the institutions where they enroll in are invested in helping them succeed. Whether public or private, that’s a message institutions serious about student success should be able to send.
Deborah A. Santiago is vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education.