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Is outsourcing community college education serving students?

California Community Colleges' deal with for-profit Kaplan University has a few catches — among them Kaplan's higher costs and the question of whether its credits would even be transferable.

July 04, 2010|Michael Hiltzik

It's not unusual for government agencies with budget problems to start outsourcing services to private industry.

Computer maintenance, prison management, landscaping — all are among the services that state or local bureaucrats have handed off to private firms over the years.

What about college education? It turns out that California is trying to outsource our public higher education system to the for-profit college industry. What is surprising is that this is happening without any evidence that the affected students would be well served.

The issue has been cast into high relief by a two-year agreement struck last year between Jack Scott, the chancellor of the California Community Colleges, and Kaplan University, an aggressively marketed institution that does most of its pedagogy online.

Under a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, students who need a course to meet their associate degree requirements but can't get it at their community college — say because of space constraints related to state budget cutbacks — would be able to take it at Kaplan.

There are some catches, however. One is that they'd have to pay Kaplan's tuition, which even with a 42% discount offered by the institution is far higher than the community college system's fees. Kaplan's discounted fee is about $646 for a three-credit class, compared with $78 at the community colleges. Another is that Kaplan will have to reach an "articulation agreement" with the student's community college, ensuring that the latter will accept the Kaplan course for full credit. (The California community colleges are more a confederation than a centrally managed system like the University of California, but they all get state funding and look to the chancellor for leadership.)

Finally, there's no guarantee that the Kaplan course will be accepted by any four-year college the student transfers to, such as a UC or Cal State University campus.

These are among the factors that have put the community college faculty's collective nose out of joint over the Kaplan deal. But there's more. The deal was reached behind the faculty's back, even though such arrangements are customarily brought to the teachers for discussion.

Then there's the financial situation underlying the MOU. Put simply, the Legislature has cheaped out on the community college system. The 112-college system, which serves nearly 3 million Californians, sustained a budget cut of $520 million, or 8% of its budget, in 2009-10. Course sections were reduced by 5% statewide, Scott's office says, with as many as half of new students trying to enroll in a class being turned away at some campuses.

"The state put us in the position where we cannot serve our students," Jane Patton, an instructor at Santa Clara's Mission College who is head of the system's academic senate, told me, "and it's getting worse by the year."

Kaplan saw an opportunity in the resulting vacuum. "We recognized the challenges that the community college system is experiencing," says Gregory Marino, president of Kaplan University Group. "Kaplan University being a student-centered institution, we thought there was a way we could help."

He says there is less advantage for Kaplan in the deal than for students needing courses, as single-course arrangements are secondary to Kaplan's core business of granting degrees. But Kaplan does get access to a community of 3 million students who might transfer to its degree program, as well as the image of having the community college system's seal of approval.

Indeed, the system "underestimated the extent that Kaplan would use the MOU as a marketing tool, which they did very effectively," says Terri Carbaugh, the community college system's vice chancellor. "The public perception was that we're hand in glove with Kaplan."

Campus officials say no articulation agreements have yet been reached, perhaps because some campus officers have been repulsed by Kaplan's crude overtures; one says Kaplan offered a free box of See's candy to the first 10 campus officials who agreed to talk about an articulation agreement.

That brings us to the question of just what kind of institution Kaplan is — and to whether the community colleges should be doing business with such institutions at all. Kaplan, an outgrowth of what used to be the Stanley Kaplan SAT prep service, is one of the faster-growing for-profit universities in the country.

Some for-profit proprietors may have rushed into the college biz less out of a mission to prepare young people for gainful employment than in the quest for gainful investment. The sector's growth coincided with the relaxation of federal regulations governing the quality of their course offerings (drifting lower) and how far they could shove their snouts into the federal trough (ever deeper).

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