Thursday, July 15, 2010

Higher Ed at the Tipping Point?

In Minnesota and beyond...

Excellent and thought-provoking article from Politics in Minnesota:

Pawlenty said, “Do you really think in 20 years somebody’s going to put on their backpack, drive a half-hour to the University of Minnesota from the suburbs, haul their keister across campus, and sit and listen to some boring person drone on about Econ 101 or Spanish 101?”

I’ve never taught either Econ 101 or Spanish 101, but I have taught at the college level at many different kinds of institutions — private, both large and small, large public and for-profit organizations.

And my point is that, to some extent, all universities are public — they all rely on public dollars from both the federal and state government levels: subsidized student loans, the GI Bill and other credit and aid programs.

Nevertheless, to hear some advocates of public higher ed tell it, the fact that we cannot simply throw more money at the system to keep up a huge number and size of programs is a tragedy that’s sending Minnesota backward on every quality-of-life indicator.

But that doesn’t square with reality.

A recent report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Veterans Use New GI Bill Largely at For-Profit and 2-Year Colleges” by Michael Sewall (June 18, 2010), describes how online, for-profit institutions are attracting a large share of active-duty military and returning veterans by tailoring their support services and schedules and handling the specific issues unique to this group.

The response from the traditional higher ed community is too often that for-profit online educational institutions are a scam or lack sufficient accreditation—or that there aren’t enough “safeguards” to make sure that students don’t pay top dollar for a worthless degree.

Although there may be fly-by-night online outfits, just like there are in any industry, the fact is that it’s easy enough to find out which schools are accredited and which aren’t.

In fact, it’s easier to find out which online schools are the real deal than it is to find out which majors in state universities lead to jobs and which will require more training.

If a for-profit online model can deliver a product that addresses the needs of certain types of students, then so be it. The public system should learn from their successes where it makes sense and leave them alone where it doesn’t.

If the public system attempts to assert its political clout to chase for-profit online institutions out of the market—by restricting student loans or through unreasonable regulation—that will not benefit students or taxpayers.

Margaret Martin has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Michigan and an M.A. from the London School of Economics.

Please note: The original article is longer and should be consulted for further information. I don't agree completely with the analysis, but the author is clearly no fool and her arguments need careful and respectful consideration.

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