Evolve and Dissolve: The Death of a Cash Cow

Evolve or dissolve. That advice, from a recent report on virtual universities, played out in two news stories this past week. The University of Texas’ online division is staring down a deep budget hole as it loses a longtime subsidy. And in Utah, budget cuts have killed a 10-campus online consortium.

Those and other predicaments reflect the growing pains of public online education. As programs mature, their business models have come under more scrutiny. The Texas and Utah cases speak to difficult questions facing states: What role should those programs play? How should states pay for them? Or should they?

Technology growth in the 1990s prompted a surge of online-learning collaborations. The groups prodded member colleges to put classes online, pooled courses into collaborative degrees, and supported online programs with promotions. Some became little more than state- or systemwide online catalogs.

News Analysis: Online Education Grows, but Painfully, By MARC PARRY

This story caught my eye because just this week the corporate entity that I work for celebrated enrolling 25,000 students for the first time. So while proprietary online education continues to grow, at least in some of its manifestations, public online schools continue their prolonged retrenchment.

I think the reasons are very obvious. The public schools thought they could leverage their reputations and already existing student bodies into a cash cow that would require little investment. They believed their own hype and invested very little of their own resources– financial and social– into developing a viable model.

Not surprisingly this model failed– or, rather, it has gone through a decade long rolling failure as one insitution after the other abandons projects that, as they sheepishly admit, turn out to not be very profitable after all. (The “Open Course” model, on the other hand, continues to thrive; that’s a separate story.)

I don’t mean to imply that the proprietary schools are doing a better job, or that they are in some sense less focused on the bottom line. That’s far from true. I think the proprietary online model is going to fail in the long run too, if that model continues to be conceived as a replacement for traditional education.

In the long run, I think, distance education is not going to be hugely profitable or broadly applicable. It’s a niche market. Once the public schools realize that and begin to search out and target their niches, the programs will run on the same model as traditional education: not a cash cow, but not a drain either.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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