Our Bad Press

Since I work at a for profit university I often feel a little twinge of guilt reading about some of the abuses in my industry. This recent NPR piece (“For-Profit Colleges Flexible But Expensive“) is no exception. As always, NPR makes a complex issue look simple. I realize that NPR, like all U.S. news outlets, love cheap-to-produce stories. It makes things seem much too simple sometimes, though.

I don’t mean to suggest that the private online higher education industry has no problems; far from it. I think we should shift to a not-for-profit status, perhaps if necessary through regulations so stringent that for profit status is untenable. I have yet to hear of any other solution that can solve the problems that arise from treating the student as a customer and education as a commodity.

I am willing to listen to other possible solutions, though, and I am certain that there are for profit schools that have minimized these problems. My historical guess is that if the industry doesn’t start aggressively dealing with these problems, the not-for profit status is nearly inevitable. All of that said, the NPR piece has a lot of problems that, as I said, seem to arise from poor research.

First of all, the University of Phoenix may or may not be the worse offender but it should not be held up as the exemplary model. Phoenix is exemplary of the ‘made from scratch’ model, but there are other models too. My school, for example, is a kind of spin off from an already existing institution or set of institutions. Reporters need to start making distinctions.

I have seen lots of horror stories about online education, but very little actual research into the efficacy of the different models. Again, this would mean going beyond Phoenix, which is only one system or model, and into the classrooms to see what is or is not done well. I also think that the discussion of costs is very distorted, becuase the comparison is to the community colleges.

If you are going to make that comparison, then you need to be able to talk carefully about the education these students receive. Again, it’s a distortion to focus solely on Phoenix. I’d like to see the cost of higher education reduced as well, but I don’t think you help that cause by lumping all schools into the same basket and by trivializing the benefits of 24 hour access for working people.

Why not title the piece, “Traditional Education Cheap But Rigid”? Again, this is in no way to minimize problems. But it is important to note that the for profits did not arise in a vacuum. They arose, in part, due to a higher education system that was ignoring the needs of a lot of people. In the long run, the for profits need strict regulation; meanwhile lots of us are trying to teach our students.

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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