All-out war: A case study in media coverage of for-profit higher education

From SAGE Open

Views on the role of for-profit colleges have been varied, opposing and very public. This debate had played out primarily in the media, and those sentiments have been researched and analyzed in this article. Using neutral, positive and negative classifications, the study author tracks the life cycle–or rather news cycle– of the topic of for-profit colleges in US media. The catalyst for coverage seems to be a May 2010 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Critics’ perspective is that for-profits were predators taking advantage of low-performing students. An analysis of articles from this time period shows that after months of relatively no coverage, there was a sharp spike in negative coverage for months to come. The trend shifted in August after the Washington Post, which owns Kaplan University, wrote an article about the for-profit institutions’ fight against regulatory action. The battle in the court of public opinion is still being waged today, and the author asserts that it will continue “as long as conservatives and progressives fail to find common ground that places decision making in the hands of students while establishing effective quality control of for-profits.”


About 19 million students attend U.S. higher education institutions. Institutions with a for-profit tax status educate 2 million of these students. Since the election of President Barack Obama in November 2008, media portrayals of for-profits have seen violent swings among neutral, positive, and even intensely negative views. Two sets of forces have been at work behind the scenes. First is the U.S. government, including the U.S. Senate, the U.S. Department of Education, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Second are the for-profit institutions themselves. This case study explores how these forces drove dramatic media coverage shifts in the first two years of the Obama administration.

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Article details
Gramling, T. (2011). All-Out War: A Case Study in Media Coverage of For-Profit Higher Education SAGE Open, 1 (1) DOI: 10.1177/2158244011414732

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