Published on 2013/04/09

As Distinctions Blur, For-Profit and Non-Profit Higher Education Will Evolve Together

As Distinctions Blur, For-Profit and Non-Profit Higher Education Will Evolve Together
As distinctions blur among public, private non-profit and for-profit institutions, all will face similar challenges in higher education in the near future.

There’s been a lot of debate about the relative merits of for-profit, private non-profit and public higher education. It’s important to note that a particular trend has already begun, whereby the distinctions between these models are blurring.

With less public funding available for higher education despite increasing costs, public and private non-profit colleges and universities have eyed the revenue models of the for-profit, online institutions. In turn, for-profit institutions, increasingly under public scrutiny, have mimicked the outreach and service efforts of their public counterparts. Public universities are creating for-profit arms and private institutions are developing a greater public presence.

Partnerships across the educational models are growing more common. Even elite universities such as Stanford University, Harvard University and UC Berkeley are joining forces with Coursera, edX and other companies to extend the reach of higher education through MOOCs, the better-known acronym for “massive open online courses.”

Historically, higher education has had a variety of funding models. Universities in Medieval and Renaissance Europe could be supported by the Crown, Catholic Church or students themselves, resulting in differing consequences for curricula. In the 20th-century United States, for-profit institutions were the first to respond to the need for vocational training in an increasingly industrialized society. They later took advantage of changing technology to make distance and online education available to busy adults who needed degrees. Only afterwards did public institutions catch up, first by creating community college systems and, more recently, by developing online courses of their own.

Given the blurring of distinctions, the changes we’re likely to see in higher education will apply to for-profit, private non-profit and public institutions alike, including:

Students will have more ways to earn a higher education credential

Modes of education and assessment will become more diverse. Both traditional degree programs and online education will continue to exist, but institutions will offer a greater mix of the two. Expect continuing debate about the value of each form of education, whether it’s the traditional, campus-based liberal arts program or the largely online, “no frills” $10,000 degrees proposed by states such as Texas and Florida.

Institutions will grant academic credits and degrees to students for competency-based learning, prior learning and exam-based assessment. They’ll also become credit aggregators, collecting the credits students earn at multiple colleges and universities to award degrees. By the time students graduate, many will have experienced a combination of face-to-face instruction, online courses and non-course pedagogy resulting from on-the-job learning — or even from what they’ve taught themselves.

Reputation and thought leadership will continue to be important, but in new ways

As institutions provide an increasingly similar education, their reputations will gain importance to students and employers. Reputation will be based on multiple factors, not just the traditional measure of faculty research and research grants. The long-term success of graduates will top the list, but consideration will also be given to an institution’s reputation for teaching, technology, innovation, public leadership and social networks. The increased availability of data will allow for more accurate assessments of institutions in these critical areas.

Successful institutions balance innovative technology with sound pedagogy

Innovation and new technology get attention — just look at the surge of interest in MOOCs today. Yet, institutions that succeed in the long term will understand the importance of having good pedagogy behind the technology.

For example, research tells us providing students with multiple assessment points, feedback and follow-up are sound educational practices. Applying proven practices in the use of technology can make a difference for students. That’s one reason why we incorporate discussion boards and simulations in education programs at Walden University.

We’re better able to meet students’ educational needs by implementing effective instruction and curriculum strategies as well as piloting new technology. At Walden, we provide students with virtual field experiences, integrate links to coursework in our online library, embed career center resources in professional development courses and incorporate peer mentoring in particularly challenging courses. Our experience has shown that, sometimes, innovation is not disruptive; it can also come from many small changes.

It’s unlikely higher education will undergo any great change in the near future that will suddenly make the four-year degree or the traditional classroom obsolete. Higher education will always change, but it will be more of an evolution than a radical departure. Students will continue to need what they’ve always needed: an institution with a good reputation, and an education that provides them with the skills and knowledge to be superior citizens and professionals.

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Readers Comments

Stephanie Ritchie 2013/04/09 at 8:47 am

As the lines between for-profit, private non-profit and public institutions blur, the future of the small- to medium-sized public institution becomes more uncertain. Larger and elite institutions will continue to carry out their mandates without being affected by the other types of institutions, but smaller public institutions could face stiff competition from private and for-profit institutions, that would be increasingly similar to them in terms of education delivery. It will be interesting to see how these smaller public institutions deal with the changing reality in the years to come.

Melanie Khan 2013/04/09 at 4:11 pm

It’s an important point that innovation doesn’t necessarily have to be disruptive, but that it can also stem from incremental changes. I fully support his view that technology should be adopted insofar as it supports the “sound pedagogy” on which every higher education institution rests.

Simon Pickering 2013/04/09 at 5:03 pm

I’m intrigued by this idea of the “credit aggregator,” a body or institution responsible for essentially gathering and packaging a student’s experiences and achievements. Contrary to Riedel’s thinking that colleges or universities would take on this role, I believe a third-party provider could become the credit aggregator of the future. Higher education institutions, it seems, are struggling with their finances and might not have the resources to devote to such an endeavor. A third-party provider could take on the aggregator role and leave institutions to focus on their teaching and research missions.

Dr. Tom Phelan 2013/04/16 at 9:01 am

As pressures mount for all institutions of higher learning, my experience has seen too little emphasis on sound pedagogy. In fact, I’ve seen little evidence that higher education deans understand the basics of instruction. Professors “cover” the material, which means students read, discuss and write short papers in most cases. There is little teaching taking place. Professors are reading (perhaps) student work, but providing little or no substantive feedback. The notion of offering writing assistance on matters of grammar or proper documentation (regardless of style guide required) is a lost art. If higher education is to succeed, we must focus on teaching and learning, not on finance and technology. Technology provides tools. Professors might learn to use technology to support instruction, not to replace it. Online courses are convenient and effective only if the teaching is present. So many tools are available to online programs for monitoring instruction that many university professors and administrators are overwhelmed and failing to use the tools to improve instruction. I predict the online education bubble will burst, and traditional university structures will survive, though blended and improved from the lessons learned by online programs.

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