Lessons from the Edge: For-profit and Non-Traditional Higher Education in America
reviewed by Kevin Kinser - 2006
Title: Lessons from the Edge: For-profit and Non-Traditional Higher Education in America
Author(s): Gary A. Berg
Publisher: Praeger Publications, Westport
ISBN: 0275982580, Pages: 214, Year: 2005
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For-profit higher education is no longer an invisible element of the postsecondary universe. Over the past several years, the sector has received growing attention and a robust, if still limited, literature has emerged regarding these institutions. Gary Berg has added to this literature with his provocatively titled contribution, Lessons from the Edge: For-profit and Non-Traditional Higher Education in America. In it, he takes a close look at the University of Phoenix, the largest and most well-known for-profit institution, and peripherally considers two other for-profit universities, Argosy and DeVry, as well as two not-for-profit, non-traditional institutions, Heritage College and Fielding Graduate Institute. Based primarily on interviews with administrators at each institution, Berg sets out to map the characteristics of the for-profit sector, to understand why it has been so successful of late, and to derive lessons that can informand improveeducation in traditional colleges and universities.
The strength of this book lies in its coherent presentation of the philosophy of education that undergirds the University of Phoenix. Just about everyone who has studied this institution has noted the single-mindedness with which it pursues its mission, the economies of scale it has achieved, and the deep-seated us versus them mentality that defines Phoenixs relationship to traditional higher education. Berg is no exception, though these straightforward ideas are not ultimately what his book is about. To Berg, the fact that the University of Phoenix and its ilk make a profit is of only passing interest; and battles with accreditors, state regulators, and others representing traditional interests simply serve as evidence that the for-profit sector is shaking up the status quo. He emphasizes, rather, how Phoenix is a true educational institution, and highlights its student-centered focus and socially informed mission as being central to its success as a university. Berg presents what amounts to an educational defense of the Phoenix model, and cogently presents the benefits that such a model provides to the career-oriented, adult, part-time student. The institution has an aura of mystique and mythology surrounding its operations, and those interested in a better understanding of the University behind the curtain will find Bergs account accessible and well-written. Although some might quibble with his largely uncritical perspective, he has done a commendable job of providing an accurate portrait of a rather complex institution, as well as an intelligent justification for its rather unorthodox methods.
There are, however, serious limitations to Bergs larger analysis regarding the lessons that can be learned from studying for-profit and non-traditional higher education. Much of this can be traced to the rather odd admission made in the introduction to the book: Berg initially wanted to write a book only about the University of Phoenix, but decided after consultation with various colleagues and editors at different presses (p. 12) that a broader scope was needed, leading him to include four other institutions. This was good advice indeed. Not only is the University of Phoenix a quite unusual for-profit institution making it a poor selection to represent the sector, it is also featured prominently in much of the recent writing on the subject , suggesting other for-profit institutions have been neglected.
Unfortunately, Berg did not duplicate his extensive University of Phoenix analysis in considering the contributions of the other schools. As the introduction implies, DeVry and Argosy, as well as the two not-for-profits, do seem to be afterthoughts to his original interest. This becomes clear in the third chapter, where, after a five page profile of the University of Phoenix, Berg summarizes DeVry in two pages, Heritage College and the Fielding Institute in a page, and Argosy in a single brief paragraph. A similar pattern continues throughout the book. Each chapter is dominated by the University of Phoenix, with the other institutions mentioned brieflyif at all. Differences among the five institutions are infrequently explored, and alternative perspectives implied by the non-Phoenix schools are not pursued.
A second serious weakness to Bergs analysis involves his lack of attention to previously published material regarding his topic. Although the literature on the for-profit sector can be rather obscure, several items are strikingly absent from this book. For starters, the founder of the University of Phoenix, John Sperling, has written two books about his institution , both of which speak in great detail to the topics Berg considers. A book by Richard Ruch also covers from an insiders perspective much of the same ground as Berg and even includes Phoenix, Argosy, and DeVry among the five institutions that form the basis of his work. As someone not involved in for-profit higher education, Berg has the opportunity to provide a unique perspective. One would hope that such clearly relevant texts as those by Sperling and Ruch would be used to inform his study and its conclusions.
The lessons that Berg derives from his study are clearly based on what he saw at the University of Phoenix, and there is little to suggest that his original conceptualization of the book was modified by the inclusion of other institutions or other perspectives. His conclusions, then, should be treated as hypotheses. They are quite appropriate generalizations from the successful University of Phoenix model, but their applicability to the rest of the for-profit sector, to nontraditional higher education, and to the whole postsecondary enterprise is uncertain. With Bergs strong case study of the University of Phoenix serving as a base, however, the book provides grounding for future study, though the promise of the books title remains largely unfulfilled. This is disappointing because it is clearly a missed opportunity. The idea floated in the introduction that for-profit or nonprofit status wasnt really the determining factor characterizing these institutions (p. 12) is an intriguing proposition. If only Berg had followed his intuition and seriously explored that point, our understanding of this segment of the higher education enterprise would have been much improved.
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