Published on 2013/03/06
Looking to the Future: For-Profits in 10 Years
In 10 years’ time, for-profit institutions will be known for customer service, strong ties to the workforce and models that provide credit for prior learning — making higher education more relevant and affordable for prospective students.

The future of for-profit institutions of higher education may seem a bit murky, especially in light of the press they’ve had in recent years. However, the market has a way of evening things out, which encourages me to believe there is still a lot of promise in the positive impact for-profit institutions could have in furthering the disruptions that are occurring, and will continue to occur, in higher education. For-profit institutions are uniquely positioned to combine valid educational models with sound business practices. This position will lead to greater access for students and more affordable opportunities to earn a degree. Though some question the value of such degrees, I believe that for-profits will emerge with valid, more efficient models of learning.

The popularity of massive open online courses (MOOCs) demonstrates that learners are growing in their acceptance of learning outside of traditional classrooms.  As MOOCs themselves improve, so will student experiences in online learning environments. That progress will encourage even the most tentative e-learners to try learning in an environment that causes fewer disruptions to their personal and work lives. Such evolution will lead to increased demand for online, self-paced, competency-based educational degree paths. For-profit institutions are quite possibly the best equipped to meet this type of demand in the higher education industry. The reason for this is that for-profits will be able to create partnerships with various entities looking to advance innovation in higher education and, also, with those who want to encourage educational endeavors that build job readiness in new hires. Competency-based educational models naturally facilitate workplace-tailored education. This opens the door for the market to decide the quality of students’ education.

Implementing various forms of self-paced, competency-based models, for-profit institutions will be in a position to offer credit for learning that students bring with them to a degree program.  For-profits will have the resources and the focus to improve and enhance competency-based, self-paced programs due to the simple fact that they will have a vested interest in improving their “customer” experience. For-profits will be able to build alliances with a variety of business endeavors, enabling these institutions to build programs and degrees that respond to market needs. Virtual for-profits will be in a position to adjust to learner lifestyles and experiences more readily than traditional models.

One of the biggest disruptions in higher education is the conflict in fitting sound business practices with sound educational aims. There have been various attempts to bridge this chasm over the years, but most of these attempts have tried to fit two already-existing and traditional models, in both business and higher education, together. However, as technologies advance and degree-seeking students become more accustomed to self-directed online programs, for-profits that choose entirely new approaches to funding and education delivery will be more successful and less encumbered. One of the biggest changes that will encourage such growth will be fewer entanglements with government funding and regulation. Of course, this will mean that for-profits will not be in a position to accept government grants or loans. However, it also means that for-profits will be more agile and responsive in building programs and degree paths that are more directly aligned to the needs and demands of current job markets and students.  This will allow them to build new reputations based on customer satisfaction and public endorsements from businesses. A key to making this endeavor successful will be that graduates prove to be prepared to fulfill their new responsibilities on day one of their employment.

The trade-off with this approach, and the reason that traditionalists are skeptical, is that there will be a lot less actual observation of students in the act of learning. Student acquisition of learning will be less controlled by professors and institutions. Their learning will be student-centered, student-controlled, student-directed and very much a student responsibility. What it doesn’t mean is that traditional institutions will not have a place in the new order of higher education. On the contrary, I believe their place will increase in value. Traditional universities will still be the power in research and in the pursuit of validating newer models of learning.  They will also be the gatekeepers of more liberal education degrees and opportunities. The traditional model will also remain a valuable component in the social and academic growth of beginners in the world of higher education.

Some might predict the demise of for-profits as they are known at present. I, however, predict that the future is bright for pioneering for-profit institutions that look down the road to see the potential for growth and sustainability, not in large profit margins, but in excellent customer service, strong alliances with businesses and efficient models that provide credit for learning without regard for how the learning was acquired.

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Readers Comments

Belinda Chang 2013/03/06 at 8:45 am

Having the market decide on the value of a degree is not necessarily a good thing. I agree there does need to be better dialogue between higher education institutions and employers, to ensure graduates are equipped to meet market needs. However, I’m not convinced that it’s these institutions’ sole responsibility to make students “job ready” in the technical sense of the term. Higher education institutions already produce graduates who are “job ready,” in that they’ve been taught (and had a chance to practice) critical thinking, problem solving, research, analysis, communication and all of the other skills that prepare them to tackle real-life issues. Perhaps what they’re not being taught is the technical knowledge that will allow them to be ready to work on day one. But that’s where employers can step up and offer “hard skills” training specific to their needs.

The benefit of having employers do this type of training is that you don’t end up with “cookie cutter” employees who are virtually indistinguishable from one another, which would be the case if higher education institutions were responsible for pumping out employees. Instead, have higher education institutions equip individuals with the “soft skills” that employers don’t have the luxury of time to teach employees. In this way, you will encourage creativity and innovation that will benefit the market in the long run.

    Vera Matthews 2013/03/06 at 3:04 pm

    I agree with the comment above. However, like Jodi, I believe there is real value for the industry coming from for-profit institutions.

    They are challenging notions of higher education and forcing the traditional institutions to justify why they do things the way they do. They are also leading the charge to develop more student-centered programming and education delivery. Thus, the value is to have non-profit institutions learning from them, but not being replaced by them.

    Without this group of colleges and universities, our industry would still be suffering from severe stagnation, rather than adapting to the changes that are beginning to define higher education today.

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