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Whose Mission Is It Anyway?

The free market allows us for the availability of a plethora of options, but this means extra effort must be made to assess the best possible option for one’s needs. Photo by Francois Schnell.

The clash between For-Profit and Non-Profit Higher Education didn’t start recently. It was going on back in the days of “correspondence courses.” It just wasn’t terribly visible. The Internet’s enabling of “online education” has brought this clash more clearly into view, and so now we have headlines! Claims versus Counter-claims! Is it all glitz? Or is the working of the free market? Perhaps Adam Smith should have been clearer. Can we blame him?

Let’s look behind the curtain – focusing on corporate employees. Corporations have always been interested in upgrading their employees. Well, at least in upgrading the abilities of their better employees to do even better for the corporation. This is driven by a profit motive—which is nothing to be ashamed of. Corporations have long paid tuition for employees to participate in higher education, as well as often providing on-site training.

Corporations expect to pay for these services, and today there is increasing competition in the provider sector for this revenue.

Wait – is this “training” while Non-Profit Higher Ed emphasizes “education”. There certainly is a difference, but there also is overlap. I may be biased, I’ve worked entirely in non-profit higher ed… so feel free to differ with me. (The EvoLLLution does provide a nice comment feature below for this type of discussion—so please provide us with your perspective).

Training is focused on skills needed in the near term. Example: learning to use the features of Microsoft Office 2015. The corporate staff must learn at least these basics – now! Ditto for SolidWorks 2015. (Brand names are mentioned for illustrative purposes – no criticism or endorsement is intended.)

Education is focused on learning improved capabilities, e.g., so in the context of Word 2015, it would be on developing the mind of the student to understand what should be communicated, on why it should be communicated and how to communicate it. Secondarily it could include coverage of the ins and outs of Word 2015 – but also develop the capability of assessing the advantages and shortcomings of Microsoft Office and OpenOffice, recommending which is a better choice, and justifying that conclusion.

Overlap between training and education is most evident in the Community College and the 2 year college sector. Those institutions typically differentiate between “academic” courses and “workforce development” courses. But even in academic courses, there often is “workforce development” (doesn’t that sound better than training?). For example, a Mechanical Engineering Design course (academic) very well may teach the students how to use SolidWorks. The software skills are necessary, but secondary to the main aim of the course: “Design”.

We see that both for-profit and non-profit sectors offer both training and education—although perhaps not with equal emphasis. But both sectors have both areas in their missions. The big question is “Which should be chosen?” for any given need.

Here’s where I look to the virtues of a free market, as I was taught to do by Adam Smith. Whether you are an employer or a student you can take advantage of Adam’s teaching, for any given need, evaluate the offerings, compare the quality of the offerings, the price and make an informed decision. You will find high and low quality in both sectors, and it is up to you to make a good decision.

If you don’t, you can’t blame Adam Smith.

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