Friday News Roundup: Disruption Abounds in Higher Education

Friday News Roundup: Disruption Abounds in Higher Education

By: Louis Conrad on September 2, 2011

As we stand poised to bid adieu to another week of for-profit higher education news, we pause to take stock of events.

An image problem continues to plague private sector colleges and universities -- particularly as concerns their forte, distance learning. A September 2, 2011 article in The Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin reports that "[f]ewer than one-third (29 percent) of American adults believe a course taken online provides an equal educational value to one taken in a classroom."

This less-than-flattering perception appears even as distance-learning higher-ed programs enroll record numbers of students. Convenience is key. Because distance-learning programs tend to attract students with unique life challenges, these students are willing to accept inferior value (when compared to residential education) for the greater convenience such programs offer them.

Or so the logic goes. The Capital Times article goes on to quote one Terry Webb, "a Madison Area Technical College's vice president for learner success," who argues that the dominant impression of distance learning is indeed a false one. "'I think the public sometimes thinks of online learning as somebody sitting by himself in his underwear reading stuff on a computer screen,'" the article quotes Webb as saying. "'But a good online course actually forces the student to participate. From the time we started offering online courses about a dozen years ago, the faculty have gotten better and better at figuring out how to use the strengths of that mode of delivery.'"

Also shaking up perceptions are university admissions, which these days are undergoing quite a dramatic change. "The market for matching colleges and students is about to undergo a wholesale transformation to electronic form," reports an article in the latest issue of The Washington Monthly.

When the time comes ... to apply to colleges, ConnectEDU will take all of the information it has gathered and use sophisticated algorithms to find the best colleges ... to find a match ... in the same way that Amazon uses millions of sales records to advise customers about what books they might like to buy and helps the lovelorn find a compatible date. At the same time, on the other side of the looking glass, college admissions officers will be peering into ConnectEDU’s trove of data to search for the right mix of students.

That's right, complex algorithms will soon govern the college selection process. This will hopefully breed out the inefficiencies plaguing the process in its present iteration. More harmonious matching of students to institutions is the ideal toward which the industry is striving, and it's encouraging to see that it may just be realized.

And it looks like career colleges are doing a little shaking-up of the industry themselves. "Traditional colleges may think they have nothing to learn from for-profits," reads the dek to a September 1, 2011 Campus Technology article, "but when it comes to advanced use of technology, look no further."

Indeed, technology is what hones the for-profits' competitive edge, allowing it greater flexibility and reduced overhead -- two virtues made necessities by the realities of the 21st-century marketplace. "According to some estimates, for-profit colleges spend more than 10 percent of their operating budgets on technology infrastructure," the Campus Technology article reports, "while not-for-profits spend less than three percent."

Were today's higher-ed imperatives merely a matter of getting and spending, it would be difficult to see how for-profit institutions could prevail over their entrenched competition. It may just be that the former is grabbing a slice of a growing pie. Like all things, however, we'll have to wait and see. 

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