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Three Positives and Negatives of Higher Education’s Commoditization for Students

Three Positives and Negatives of Higher Education’s Commoditization for Students
Commoditization can make higher education far more accessible for non-traditional students, but given the competition beginning to characterize the marketplace, it is becoming more difficult for students to determine which programs are right for them.

The past two years or so have produced perhaps the most rapid changes ever seen in higher education. The “completion agenda” set forth by President Obama and the Lumina Foundation has enabled institutions to focus on the graduation of all students, rather than only those who enter as part of a specific first-time full-time freshman cohort. Concurrently, the introduction of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) has generated a substantially increased focus on the potential for degree completion through an online environment. These changes have also generated a significant amount of competitive recruiting, marketing and advertising in efforts to enroll mostly non-traditional (older, returning adult) students, the consumers of higher education.

With these changes and opportunities come a number of conditions that can facilitate one’s degree completion along with others that might, in fact, impede it. Some of the most significant of these factors affecting these conditions are described below.

Advantages: without these new opportunities, many students would never have realized a college degree was still possible.  The advantages include:

     1. Reduced Cost

The competitiveness for enrolling students in online courses (or to complete degree programs), literally from across the globe, has created a marketplace that enables students to enroll in almost any course provided by dozens of institutions. This competition has driven both the cost to the institution and the price for the student downward due to almost unlimited enrollments.

     2. Accessibility

Similarly, the online course environment and proliferation of such opportunities enables students to enroll in courses at multiple times during the calendar year and to complete the required work for each course on their own time, that is, around work, family and other personal obligations. Students are also able to complete courses at a single location, usually their own home, a library or some other designated space. The alleviation of time and space restrictions for learning is a tremendous enhancement to this degree completion opportunity.

     3. Fulfillment of Dreams

Perhaps the most significant of the results associated with these opportunities for many students is the realization they are able to earn a degree, which might have seemed unattainable until now. Many of the barriers to completion are removed from their paths and a college degree is suddenly within reach.

Disadvantages: capitalizing on these opportunities may come with some risk. The consumer of any commodity must always acknowledge the “buyer beware” warning label, and this is unfortunately also true with higher education. Some disadvantages (warnings) include:

     1. Inflated Expectations (especially for transfer)

Sometimes students may become so enthralled with their new opportunities for courses they might make assumptions about how their newly-earned credits will apply to their previous degree program or transfer to the institutions they previously attended. Academic policies at a former institution might allow for limited courses taken at other institutions, have time limits on specific courses or have substantial changes in degree requirements. Clearly, students must confer  with the institution from which they intend to earn a degree before enrolling in courses.

     2. Coherence of the Degree Program

When students take advantage of the multiple and varied opportunities for completing courses that enable them to advance their degree, they often succumb to the simple criterion of availability — if it meets a requirement, it’s okay. This principle might be true, but the relationships of the total curriculum could easily be lost in the disconnectedness of taking courses from many different sources. This is not to say  students do not learn from each course, but that the integration of course content may not be obvious when left to the individual students to infer.

     3. Vulnerability

Unfortunately, there are course and degree “providers” engaged in this new opportunity that are not as ethical, or even legitimate, as most are. Misleading advertising can be very compelling to the eager and unsuspecting student, especially since there has been so much positive press about these expectations and opportunities. However, diploma mills do exist, and the student is responsible to verify a provider’s status. Also, some institutions may mask their lack of specific accreditation(s) in order to attract unsuspecting students. Such accreditations can be especially relevant in professional and licensure programs, and even in traditional liberal arts and science, business, health care and other areas.

In summary, students who want to seize the opportunity to complete their degrees should be encouraged to do so with vigor, but they must also do so with rigor, that is, to be sure the courses and/or programs they intend to pursue will meet all of their expectations, lest they become a different kind of commodity as a result.

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