Higher Education 50 Years from Now: A For-Profit Perspective
If it were possible to gaze into a portal to the future, the conceptualization of higher education might be much more diverse than it is today. Remnants of the current system of post-secondary system would continue to be evident, but it might no longer be the most common road to attaining a college degree.
Throughout history, societies have evolved as conditions and needs changed. Today’s higher education evolution is fueled by significant changes in economic, technological, political and social conditions. The struggles we face as a country, and as a global community, are compelling post-secondary institutions to transform. As the years roll on, if they desire to remain relevant, institutions of higher education must adapt to market forces from which they have been historically shielded.
The next 50 years will see dramatic increases in the number of both non-profit and for-profit institutions. Non-profit institutions, such as Western Governors University, will continue to thrive but will also continue to struggle with what appears to be ever-increasing regulatory strings attached to federal financial aid programs. Predatory for-profits, as they have existed for the last 20 years, will be mostly extinct. There are two main reasons for this. First, consumers have choices, so there is increasing competition to serve students well. Secondly, those consumers are now, or will soon become, more aware of widespread predatory practices characteristic of so many for-profits.
Many consumers are experiencing the debilitating long-term effects of the massive student debt those practices have perpetuated. To compete with the public and non-profit institutions, for-profits will need to better meet the demands of working adults. Further, to overcome monumental negative stereotypes, for-profits will need to do well by doing good. This good can come in many forms.
University Now (the parent company of Patten University and my home institution), for example, has developed a number of programs to support the education of municipal and federal government employees. The College Works program partners with city governments and businesses to cap tuition for partner cities and businesses at the amount of the employer’s tuition assistance benefit. Currently used by the cities of San Francisco, Sacramento and Oakland, all in California, and a number of large businesses, this program removes the pressure on students to make up the funding gap on their own. Furthermore, University Now will be providing business degrees to employees of the Department of Health and Human Services, specialized to respond to the department’s needs. Similar partnerships are forthcoming and demand is increasing — and this should serve as a model for more for-profit institutions in the future.
Additionally, when it comes to the higher education industry, for-profit institutions benefit from the advantages of being run like a business, and from being separate from government funding sources. To begin with, running the institution like a lean business from the beginning is part of the strategy to ensure affordability for students and scalability. Being organized as a for-profit business also allows an institution to avoid the regulatory interference associated with accepting federal financial aid. This means savings can be passed on to students. In spite of the lack of federal regulation, for-profit institutions should absolutely be party to the same regional and national accreditation processes as public, private and non-profit schools. These strategies allow for-profit institutions to offer high-quality education at prices just about anyone can afford.
Fifty years from now, wiser consumers and globalization will create the market conditions that will reward post-secondary institutions for ethical behavior. Those entities that will be most successful will be those who provide opportunities to more people that are high in quality, flexible and affordable. Fifty years from now we can all hope that such success will perpetuate a new breed of for-profits that lead the industry, both traditional and non-traditional, through innovation, smart business and integrity to the benefit of all.