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Learning From The For-Profits

Learning From The For-Profits
Though they’re currently behind the curve, public higher education institutions will adopt best practises from the for-profit industry to blend the two sides and create a model of protected, affordable and learner-centric higher education. Photo illustration by Will Culpepper.

The philosopher Hegel believed that history moved forward by a dialectical movement. It begins with a thesis that is negated by an antithesis and then both are resolved by a third movement which Hegel called a synthesis. This synthesis contains the elements of both the original thesis and the antithesis.

The digital revolution has impacted every sector of our society. It has changed how we work, how we communicate, how we learn and even how we date and marry. The digital revolution changes how we use, value, create and store information. Colleges are places where we use, create, value and store information. So it was to be expected the digital revolution would fundamentally change higher education.

From the founding of the first European universities in the Thirteenth Century to the present day, one of the key ideas was faculty governance or shared governance. This meant that faculty would discuss and vote on changes in the university. This meant that sometimes change has come slowly to the university. Many great thinkers since the Renaissance made their discoveries outside of the universities, which were often behind the curve.

The digital revolution brought the idea of online learning. But many colleges were slow to adopt online classes. Faculty senates and faculty committees were cautious about the changes this would bring to the university. They were worried about faculty workload, educational quality and academic freedom. These are all issues seen from the professor’s point of view.

The for-profit universities did not have the same restraints on the change from chalk and talk to the digital classroom. They quickly grasped the new technologies and ran with them. In a large part this is the reason for their success.

Some for-profits have acted unethically and some have had shoddy academic quality. But this does not mean they did not do things that other colleges can learn from.

What did the for-profits do well?

  1. They reached out and made it easy to attend class. They have a system that begins with a prospective student and the team does not let go of the student’s hand until they are in class.
  2. They had multiple revolving starts so that the student could start when they were ready. They were not held prisoner by the old agricultural calendar of harvest and planting.
  3. They embraced online learning and outreach centers that brought education to people who hard a hard time driving 50 miles to college after 8 hours on their feet.
  4. They monitored data to see where students failed, where they succeeded and where they could improve and worked to make the whole degree work.
  5. They simplified the transfer process by trusting other colleges rather than having a student redo English 101 all over again because the community college down the road does not use Shakespeare and we do.
  6. They built websites that minimized visits to campus and waiting in lines. They made it easy to enroll and do other business online.
  7. They designed the whole college around a single experience, not registrar is different from bursar is different from academic advising or this school allows this general education course but another school in the same university does not.

When this all shakes out, I predict many of the badly run for-profits will be gone. But so will schools that have not adapted to the digital revolution.

A third type of university will emerge which is neither for-profit nor non-profit. It will be flexible, learner oriented, data heavy and user friendly. It will have a faculty that makes a living wage and is protected from question of profit or numbers. A Hegelian synthesis will come. We just need to be patient.