A little more than two years ago now, I left my position as an Associate Professor at Alliant International University in Los Angeles. Many people have asked me since then why I left full time academic work. The position was relatively well-paid, with good job security. I had good colleagues, many of whom are friends to this day. I had the closest thing to tenure that the university offered: A five-year rolling contract. And I was teaching and doing research, both of which I love.
I’ve gotten used to providing a diplomatic answer to that question. My wife and I were starting a family, and the time had come for me to make a change. That’s true, it’s just purposefully incomplete. Here’s the full story.
The morals of for-profit education
My experiences at Alliant were, for the most part, great. I got my doctoral degree there. As a faculty member, I was involved in program growth and reaccreditation through COAMFTE (here’s why that matters). I had wonderful colleagues, and many excellent students. Sure, full time academic work at any university is peppered with meetings that go nowhere, endless committee work, and other annoyances, but on balance, the work is deeply rewarding.
Shortly before I left, though, Alliant became a Benefit Corporation. A Benefit Corporation (or “B-Corp” in some circles) is a for-profit business that has some structural protection for public-service elements of its mission. This presented me with a moral dilemma.
Alliant, like most private graduate institutions, had always been expensive. (Several MFT programs in private universities, like Alliant, currently have tuition costs that are roughly five times the tuition at the lowest-costing public universities, according to the tuition estimates at MFTCalifornia.com.) But I could always rest assured that the tuition was going back into the university to support the university’s work.
With the change to a benefit corporation structure, the university took on investors. It is now owned by German media conglomerate Bertelsmann. This means that the university is no longer aiming simply for financial sustainability – it is aiming for profit. A portion of student tuition money, which in many cases comes in the form of taxpayer-backed loans, now can go into the hands of an ownership group, and not necessarily back into quality education. That didn’t sit well with me.
I’m not anti-capitalist or anti-profit, even within the training world. I wrote a textbook, and while I try to keep its cost low, I do aim to make money off of it. But when it comes to universities, for-profit institutions face what economists call perverse incentives. Namely, their business can be more profitable if they do things that perhaps aren’t good for education. Like admitting underqualified students, advancing and graduating those students (so as to stay above graduation-rate thresholds required by accreditors), and then finding ways to manipulate their data on employment. Like replacing experienced and effective faculty with younger, less expensive hires. And like focusing expectations for faculty away from research, professional service, and other valuable non-teaching activities, and putting them more squarely on the classroom.
To be clear, I don’t know that Alliant or any other for-profit university actually does any of those things. Indeed, many of my former colleagues who still work there would surely fight valiantly against those pressures. And those private non-profit universities that are tuition-dependent face some of the very same pressures and incentives. But non-profits simply don’t have the built-in structural demand that they make profits for their investors. That demand may be too much for some academic programs to bear: There are class-action lawsuits pending against for-profit Capella University and Northcentral University. (Northcentral is in the process of being taken over by National University.)
I’m happy to say that I’m still doing academic work. I serve as adjunct faculty for two universities: California State University Northridge, and The Wright Institute in Berkeley. One is public, one is private, and neither is for-profit. I’m proud to be with both, and don’t have to wrestle with moral conflict each time I go to class.