The Commonwealth Iconoclast

A site dedicated to covering issues relevant to the Commonwealth of Virginia, and nation at large, plus other interesting things too, as I see fit...

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Future of Higher Education: Bricks-n-Sticks vs. Point and Click?

It’s hard to live near a public college/university campus in the Commonwealth and not hear the roar of a bulldozer or the banging of a hammer. For instance, when I’m in Harrisonburg I constantly hear folks tell me that JMU will be increasing its enrollment by an additional 5,000 – 10,000 students in the next 10 years. Now, I don’t know exactly how accurate this number might be, but I think it’s safe to assume that a sort of “arms race” is now underway in the Commonwealth – and other states as well - in regard to our public institutions of learning.

But as Universities throughout the Country expand their physical campuses, in order to accommodate the influx of new students, another interesting trend is developing. For-profit institutions of higher learning – many of which exclusively conduct classes on-line – appear to be gaining favor with students, and more importantly Congressional legislators. For instance, yesterday the New York Times reported that Congress has recently scrapped the “one half rule”, and now will allow for students enrolled in on-line universities to have full access to Federal financial aid. Here’s a quick blurb from the NYT piece:

It took just a few paragraphs in a budget bill for Congress to open a new frontier in education: Colleges will no longer be required to deliver at least half their courses on a campus instead of online to qualify for federal student aid.

That change is expected to be of enormous value to the commercial education industry. Although both for-profit colleges and traditional ones have expanded their Internet and online offerings in recent years, only a few dozen universities are fully Internet-based, and most of them are for-profit ones.

The provision is just one sign of how an industry that once had a dubious reputation has gained new influence, with well-connected friends in the government and many Congressional Republicans sympathetic to their entrepreneurial ethic.

I don’t have a passionate opinion for or against the merits of on-line education. I do take pride that I received both my undergraduate and graduate degrees the “old fashion” way. Yes, by the time I attended graduate school portions of a few of my courses were conducted exclusively on-line. It seemed to work fine to me.

Think about it, if someone wants to further their education and an on-line program helps them to do this - then super. Unfortunately, on-line universities are not without controversies. Even the popular University of Phoenix, which presently has an enrollment of over 300,000 students, has had its share of problems. For instance, the Apollo Group - a company that the University of Phoenix outsources with to handle financial aid – has had several well-documented run-ins with the law:

In August 2005, Apollo Group was fined $343,000 (less than one percent of the federal funding the company received during the period) for two federal violations that involved student funding programs. The Office of the Inspector General stated that the university improperly used funds crediting student accounts for fees on prior learning assessments. Another discovery was that it had issued funds to students enrolled in ineligible programs. Apollo's after-tax income for the three-year period was nearly $700 million.

Of course other controversies surrounding the University of Phoenix involve things like Admission Counselors aggressively recruiting potential students in order to meet quotas. On an anecdotal level, I have a family friend who has been employed as an Admissions Director for many years at Strayer University, a for-profit institution of higher learning, which has several campuses throughout the Commonwealth. I’ll never forget when several years back I asked how things were going at Strayer. The answer caught me off guard. It went something like this: “Super, our stock is up $20 in the last 6 months.” (Note: To my knowledge the majority of Strayer’s programs are traditional “classroom” courses, not internet based, but I do believe that Strayer does offer a healthy dose of internet only courses.)

Regardless, my intention here is not to bash on-line education. I’m willing to accept that the paradigm has shifted, and that on-line education indeed has the potential to provide access to higher education to individuals who (because of their careers, schedules, children, etc.) never dreamed of attending college. But it does appear that two divergent forces are at play here: Congressional leadership which seems to be willing to extend access to billions of dollars of Federal aid to students enrolling in on-line education, and states which appear to be willing to spend billions of dollars on “bricks and mortar” to accommodate traditional students. My question: can the two coexist?


  • At 3/02/2006 1:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Isn't it true that almost all colleges and universities are increasingly run as if they were "for profit" businesses?

    They are all competing for students to keep the revenues coming in to support their increasingly top heavy organizational structures.

    While the building craze continues, existing facilities in many cases are underutilized.

    On-line learning works very well for certain things and will likely take a significant "market share" of education/training business in the coming years.

    Tradtional universities will have to change to deal with the new realities.

  • At 3/02/2006 5:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Sure, the can co-exist. When you show a potential employer you academic credential, either it will be printed on toilet pager or "sheep skin". Get the point?

  • At 3/02/2006 7:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Economics are going to drive the competition between the traditional universities and the alternative learning venues. Employers are "bottom line" oriented and they don't really care about what credentials are printed on. They are looking for skills that will help their bottom line.

    Traditional universities, may in some cases be able to compete. But remember, technology is changing very fast and the typical "university politics" don't always respond with lightning speed. Also, the traditional universities have bloated administrative overhead, very expensive tenured faculty and a lot of costly infrastructure to keep up.

    Skyrocketing tuitions, out-dated programs, quality control problems and the decreasing accessibility of students to tenured faculty will lead consumers to carefully weigh their options.

    Using technology, alternative educational/training models, driven by "bottom line" thinking, will be a formidable force in the market place. It won't take the consumer long to figure out what is a better value if these alternative models work and maintain reasonable quality standards.

    Traditional universities not recognizing this reality will wake up one in the not too distant future to find that the competitors have eaten their lunch.

  • At 3/03/2006 8:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    It doesn't hurt to also dump millions of dollars of cash into the hands of lobbyist either. This too is a great way to expand your access to more students and loads of public funds too.

    These schools know the proper way to win acceptance in the main stream academic community...start with bribeing your local Congressman!


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