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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Third-Way Model for Higher Education?

Those of us in the world of non-profit education have watched the rise (and stall?) of for-profit colleges with a certain amount of angst. We feel (I think rightly) that profit motive can undermine the aims of education, that scaling up is good for business but bad for the product. In fact, we don't say "product." We say "learning." We recoil at referring to students as customers, even though we are here to serve.

At the same time, we know that education costs money, that consumers make decisions in the education marketplace based on many of the same factors that influence other purchases: cost, convenience, instant gratification, and the like. While we might not like the streamlined (or some might say stripped-down) online courses offered at many for-profit schools, we're not blind to the future. Online courses, blended courses, and learning management systems will have an increasing impact on content distribution and interactive learning. In fact, it could turn everything upside down.

At least one institution is building a model that refuses to choose between traditional college and the corporate model. The Washington Monthly profiles Western Governors University, a non-profit, online college with a strong focus on competency-based education and mentor relationships. It's still new, and struggling to improve its graduation rate, but it's model seems to be built for the long run. It's geared toward non-traditional students and focused on degrees for in-demand jobs, like teachers, nurses, and scientists. (One drawback is the lack of liberal arts degrees).

I found this paragraph noteworthy, especially given the reality that 80% of college students in the United States are non-traditional. (Ask your DMACC students some time. I always get about 75% when we discuss this issue). It seems that university education is mostly geared toward traditional students, even though they are the minority. In any event, the article points out that, regardless of our opinions of for-profit colleges, they are right about one thing: non-traditional students can feel neglected:

The education of “nontraditional” students has been a subject fraught with cognitive dissonance in America, where much of the discussion surrounding higher education is unduly preoccupied with matters of prestige and exclusivity. In this context, leaders of for-profit colleges have held up their neglected, underserved student populations as a badge of moral seriousness. “What we do is educate people who would never have a shot, thank you very much,” a former Kaplan executive said in a recent Washington Post article. In effect, the for-profit schools have accused their prestigious critics of looking at the world of working-class, adult students and saying, for all intents and purposes, “Let them eat cake.” And despite their many flaws, the for-profits have a point here. That’s why the country needs more institutions like Western Governors— innovative, low-cost schools offering degrees of demonstrable value—that put both the snobs and the profiteers to shame.

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