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One Thing The For-Profits Got Right

Co-written with Melanie Winter | Former Registrar, Shenandoah University

One Thing The For-Profits Got Right
By adopting and promoting online education, for-profit universities helped to reshape the higher education marketplace and make education more accessible and affordable for students across the United States.

We know all the things that for-profit education has done wrong; to say one word in their defense is to stir up a hornet’s nest. But a more interesting question is: “Did they get anything right?” I would argue for-profits have done something to change the face of higher education: they were the first to go digital both inside the classroom and out. By utilizing digital technologies early on, they showed the rest of higher education the way.

In the early days of what was then called “distance learning,” many traditional colleges were slow to go digital. There were debates about whether online learning was real education. There were concerns about online cheating. There were questions about faculty workload. While there were many brave pioneers in the non-profit world, it was often a struggle for them. In colleges all across the nation, there was a strong undercurrent of resistance to going online. For a long time, this resistance filibustered the growth i­­­­n online learning. For those of us who tried to push online learning at traditional colleges in the late 1980s, it was often like pulling teeth. A few institutions were progressive, but they were a minority.

This was not the case in the for-profit world. The for-profits embraced not only online classes but also a digital backbone for the entire university as a coherent business process. By doing this, the for-profits could now offer college to those students who had a hard time making it to campus. In addition, with online applications and registration processes, these institutions made it easy for a new kind of student to attend college. Who were those new students? They were often underprepared, first-generation college students who had the pressures of work and family to attend to. They were often in the lower economic tier of society. We know, from data that is decades old, that these types of students are often unsuccessful in college. For the same reason many community colleges have a high attrition rate, the students whose chances of success were often poor were admitted by for-profit institutions.

Did the for-profits water down education? This charge has been made before in American higher education. If we look back in history at the creation of the land-grant colleges in 1862, we find the established Eastern elite colleges were suspicious of “universities” that taught more about pigs than about Plato and more on agriculture than Aristotle. When the G.I. Bill was signed during the Second World War, which provided returning servicemen with tuition assistance, people wondered if these underprepared and uncultured men were college material. At the time of the American Revolution, less than 1 percent of the population was college educated. Today, more than 68 percent of high school students attend some college. The history of American higher education is the history of expanding access. But there is a counter-history of warning that any expansion of access is simultaneously a lowering of quality. With their digital reach, the for-profits brought a new population of students into the college dialogue.

Many of the for-profit colleges are now experiencing enrollment declines. Constant pressure from Washington has taken its toll on the entire sector by painting all for-profit institutions with the same broad brush. This brush stroke has not been positive. But, in the final analysis, the for-profits showed us what could be done with digital technology. For the first time in the thousand-year-old history of the university, they showed us a new type of classroom. What the for-profits did was what the non-profits could — and should — have done, but did not do.

This past year, we have reached the tipping point in online learning. Most of the large state universities now have full degrees online. Many have now dropped their residency requirement. Most private colleges now have digital courses. Many did this in reaction to the for-profit disruptive force. By invading the hallowed space of traditional colleges, the for-profits upset the whole applecart.

When the history of the American university is written, we can say the online for-profits did many things wrongly. But they did something right. They forced a conversation that should have taken place 20 years ago in the faculty senates of old and established colleges, but never did. Had those faculty senates seen the value of online learning, the for-profits as we know them today would have never been born. But the for-profits were born, and they took the initiative in bringing digital learning to a whole new audience. Music, manufacturing, finance and countless other industries have been disrupted by digital technology. It took the for-profits to show us a different kind of classroom and a revisioned campus.

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