Via The Gouverneur Times comes a December 9, 2010 Associated Press (AP) article presenting findings of a recent poll conducted to gauge public perception college graduation rates. These rates in the U.S. continue to be dismayingly low, and the public, it appears, prefers to blame students and parents rather than the colleges themselves.
These low rates moreover do little to tarnish colleges' images. "All sectors of American higher education received high marks for quality, " the AP story reports. "That extends to for-profit colleges, despite recent criticism of dubious recruiting tactics, high student loan default rates and other problems at some schools."
This undoubtedly comes as good news to for-profit colleges, whose press tends otherwise to be negative, despite the fact that they continue to drive trends in higher education generally. A December 9, 2010 story East Central Illinois's News-Gazette brings word of receptiveness expressed by campus leaders of The University of Illinois to changes more in step with the times. These proposed changes concern the following three matters:
This last matter is something just about every brick and mortar institution has been considering as they feel the pressure of competition from online universities, as well as the pressure constantly to attend to the financial bottom line.
Yet, despite the ever looming danger of budget shortfalls, higher education remains high on just about everyone's list. In his column over at AnnArbor.com, Rick Hagland ably summarizes the current socioeconomic state of play in The Wolverine State. "Governor-elect [of Michigan] Rick Snyder says, and many economic experts agree, that the nation is moving rapidly to a knowledge-based economy in which most good-paying jobs will require at least some college education," he writes. "But Michigan might struggle for years economically because its current work force is so ill equipped to fill knowledge jobs."
What Haglund reports about folks in his home state of Michigan also applies to many other U.S. states. Operating funds are just getting harder to come by, and thus trimming budgets goes on in colleges and universities across the nation, even as recognition grows that an educated populace figures critically in knowledge-based economies. With a fraction of the overhead of traditional brick and mortar institutions, online universities find themselves well-positioned to absorb those higher-education consumers whom these brick and mortar institutions just can't seem to accommodate.
And absorb these consumers they have. A December 8, 2010 article in The New York Times relates how for-profit colleges have benefited nicely from last year's Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which makes available to military veterans college tuition assistance. "More than 36 percent of the tuition payments made in the first year of the program -- a total of $640 million in tuition and fees -- went to for-profit colleges, like the University of Phoenix, according to data compiled by the Department of Veterans Affairs, even though these colleges serve only about 9 percent of the overall population at higher education institutions nationwide," the Times story reports.
This outsize amount claimed by for-profit institutions has naturally aroused suspicion on the part of lawmakers. "As the money flows to the for-profit university industry, questions are being raised in Congress and elsewhere about their recruitment practices, and whether they really deliver on their education promises," the Times story continues. "Some members say they want to place tighter limits on how much these colleges can collect in military benefits, a move certain federal officials say they would welcome."
Considered from one point of view, this certainly appears like a huge transfer of wealth from public into private coffers. But, considered from another, this appears as simply market forces at work. Arguably for-profit institutions disproportionately large share of Post-9/11 G.I. Bill money reflects consumer preference. These institutions may better suit veterans' needs, and thus veterans are electing to do business with them. The unique challenges faced not just be veterans but many nontraditional students may often be compounded by matriculation at traditional institutions. Maybe students have spouses and children. Maybe they have obligations that force them to remain where they currently reside. Critics of for-profit institutions often overlook the high degree of freedom a student needs in order to pursue a higher degree at a brick and mortar school. After all, campus student bodies wouldn't be overwhelmingly young, single and middle class if encumbrances didn't really matter.
For-profit institutions tend not assume such freedom of their clientele, and in fact, they structure their curricula in ways to best serve people who may not have much. One story, that of Sergeant Brian Hawthorne, offers some sense of the latitude offered by for-profit institutions:
Brian Hawthorne, 25, a staff sergeant in the Army Reserves, used his benefits to get a two-year, online degree from the for-profit American Military University and was able to transfer the credits to George Washington University, where he recently received a bachelor’s degree.
Sergeant Hawthorne said online education was his only option for his associate’s degree, as his Army Reserve unit was called up while he was taking classes. He continued to study as he moved to four states and then to Iraq. Many for-profit online colleges offer accelerated schedules, meaning it is possible to get an undergraduate bachelors degree in less than three years.
“Vets are really not at college to get the traditional undergraduate experience,” he said. “We are already professionals. College is a box checker, meaning we need a college degree to go into whatever we want to go into.”
For these reasons, Sergeant Hawthorne, a board member of a group called Student Veterans of America, cautioned against condemning the whole industry. “I did not feel taken advantage of,” he said. “If there are those who feel that way, let’s investigate it as individual cases and not as an industry exploiting veterans.”
Many chapters have yet to be written in this saga of the titanic struggle between brick and mortar and for-profit institutions for the hearts, minds, and dollars of returning students. Yet, as so history so often shows, base designs can breed virtuous results. Are for-profit schools bold innovators intent on re-shaping higher education, or crass charlatans intent on picking veterans' pockets? Whatever the answer, it may not even matter; the invisible hand of the market moves in mysterious ways. We wouldn't enjoy any progress if it didn't.