Discussions of the for profit online education industry can be irritating, not because the sector is unjustly criticized, but because the for-profit sector’s problems are too often discussed as if they were in no way related to broader economic problems. (See this piece, as well as the comments, for some examples.) Too often, problems in the for-profit system seem like a smoke screen for the education system at large.
The internet, and the for-profit higher education system were born in the same era of lax to no government regulation in the United States. Facebook and Twitter and the University of Phoenix all took root in a certain kind of laissez-faire capitalism. That lack of government control, most would argue, is one reason why the internet is such an important economic force. Anarchy is risky but dynamic.
Too often the emerging for-profit online education sector has fudged graduation rates and used high pressure sales tactics, to cite only the most obvious examples, in order to try to ensure its viability. These are real problems but they are also the sort of thing you find when regulations are weak; none of the internet era companies are entirely free of these problems. It’s not just the private sector, either.
This lack of regulation has distorted almost every aspect of our economic and cultural lives. I’d like to see the debates over for-profit online education use what I call a Frontline standard (the PBS documentary series). You can only understand the sorts of problems discussed in, “College, Inc.” in other words, if you also understand the sorts of problems discussed in “Money and March Madness.”