Published on 2012/03/02

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.

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Readers Comments

I recall a well-regarded educator sum up to me the problem of the original thesis with, “Today’s university model is based on an 11th century Socratic approach, operating on a 19th century agrarian calendar to prepare students for the 21st century…” Technology in human history has enabled an “antithesis” that spurred revolutionary change. One that comes to mind is the Gutenberg printing press and democratization of knowledge…I’m sure there are many others. So I think the notion of a “third type of university” emerging is valid, but even more interesting is the impact it will have on society. Already I’m seeing hopeful glimpses of online innovations that are reaching underserved / undereducated groups, which is a goal that the higher education ecosystem should keep its eye on. Thanks for sharing a thought-provoking point of view, Frank!…I look forward to your keeping the dialogue and debate going.

Joe Beckmann 2012/03/02 at 11:05 am

Good grief! There’s a huge difference between “online learning” and “online classes,” and that elision most certainly is more significant than Hegel and dialectics: where’s the action/reaction balance. And, for that matter, who says that college is only what takes place in classes? What about labs? clubs? sports? dormitories? Most college is the first time young people have away from their parents, so there’s a hell of a lot more than class to college, and a lot more to computers than what most online courses, particularly at the for-profits, might even imply. What foolishness, and it’s deep enough to give one good reason to question the seriousness of the whole inquiry.

Jennie Birdsall-Ragland 2012/03/02 at 11:58 am

Having worked in both non-profit and for-profit higher education industries, I find McCluskey’s 7 points of what for profits have done well a succinct and somewhat accurate picture. For profits have made it easy for a student to attend class. Aside from the online aspect so quickly embraced by proprietary schools, these for profits have placed physical campuses in often transitional neighborhoods where traditional schools have not seen a market. For profits do their homework – they find those populations which have access to public transportation but no easy access to post high school education and they move in to that area. For profits have multiple revolving starts – every five weeks or every eight weeks are the two most used calendars. A student doesn’t have to wait until Fall or Spring semester to start. Traditional master’s programs should probably consider this approach since so many for-profit schools are adding graduate and doctoral degrees.
Not all for profits make the transfer process easy – even within their own systems. A company, who shall remain nameless, with in the same program, had different course names and different syllabi for classes. Because the student paid for the entire program up front, rather than by the credit hour or course, transferring was difficult if not impoosible. For profits are here to stay and traditional colleges and universities should look to adopt some aspects of the business. For profits could do a MUCH better job of taking a holistic approach to students and providing support systems such as counseling assistance and support.

WA Anderson 2012/03/02 at 12:34 pm

The most important change for-profits have made is their business-like operation. They see learning as a service they are being paid to impart, and they make sure that the customer is being served.

We have a lot to learn from their student-first mentality, and the old dogs of “declining academic standards” must stand down. It’s up to individual educators to make sure their class quality is up to snuff.

Pauline Stevenson 2012/03/02 at 3:07 pm

I operate a for-profit institution in Canada, and I really like several points from the above article. Our college is a career college so, I feel, the fundamental purpose is missing from this article – which is preparing graduates for a specific place of employment. Nurturing their goals to a very polar focused employment opportunity is more important than transferability to our institution and to our students. Furthermore, our success demands that we connect our student to the jobs so the employer relationships are a critical component to our operation.

One of the strongest negative consequences that I wrestle with is that when we are promoting practicality and relevancy, we have little room for advanced learning for purposes other than to complete a task. For instance, with our Aquaculture Technician program, we prepare graduates to be effective employees upon arrival at a fish farm, hatchery, or other aquaculture company, but we certainly do not have time to follow the industry debates or explore the rapid evolution. Our graduates are trained to support an organization’s job description and to be as prepared as possible for future advancement.

I think there is so much room for collaborative efforts and harmony to support each model’s strengths and weaknesses.

Look forward to more dialogue.


Deb 2012/03/04 at 5:37 pm

I am thankful for my liberal arts education, but the reality of most young people in today’s economy is they need the minimum amount of education necessary to get started on a career track so that they can keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. While the “college experience” (living on campus, clubs, athletics, forming life-long friendships) has been shown to lead to a higher graduation rates. The current economy puts this out of reach for all but the brightest and/or the wealthiest of our citizens.

I spent my career as a community college educator and now work at a university. As funding shifts from the number of students in a seat on a census date to the number of credits earned and the length of time to graduation, we in higher ed must have these conversations. For me, it comes down to what is the nature of learning and how does the academy facilitate learning in an era when traditional liberal arts knowledge is devalued, as are the practitioners, while continuing to create new knowledge that is equally devalued.

Agata Mouasher 2012/03/04 at 5:48 pm

Granted, we’ve made it easier to access information, and get an education. Granted, we’ve leveled the playing field.

But what about the social connections, the face-to-face skills of interacting with another human being? I see so many young people with less ability to look you in the eye, smile, say hello, know how to respond to a direct question, and have some ability to make conversation. These are the youth that will graduate from online universities (because it’s right up their comfort alley) and step out into the world of retail, where in just about everything there is a need to make human contact, and build relationships.

Unless we are preparing to live in a world like “Surrogates” (with Bruce Willis), are we being blinded ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ of technology evolution to realise that we are sacrificing something even more critical to human survival?

Perhaps the antithesis does not lie so much in structure and quality of education, but in the social nemesis created along the way.

Destini Copp 2012/03/30 at 9:53 am

Great article. I wanted to focus on the last part whcih was, “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. …”

I work for a for profit school which has implemented many of the points in the article (such as revolving starts, online classes, single experience, etc).

I am very interested in hearing thoughts on what this third type of university will look like. I am not convinced that higher education, in general, is truly preparing students for the workforce which is a main objective for key stakeholders. I would like to see online classes which better simulate the workforce.

Paul Maurice 2012/05/17 at 9:40 am

I think we’re going to see public colleges and universities begin delivering programs within a “workforce readiness” department, where they provide practical, job-readying education to students who want it.

Then we’ll begin to really see the divide between students attending universities to…enrich themselves… and those who are looking to get an education and get a job.

But it can only happen when public universities formally recognize that preparing the future workforce is a major part of their job description.

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