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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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