Threat to Traditional Higher Education?

Some of my colleagues from traditional higher education have reacted to the recent negative news about some for-profit colleges and universities with almost delight.  Long feared as a threat to traditional higher education by many, the expressed view is that for-profit schools are being exposed for what they really are.

As I watch and listen to these reactions, I find myself feeling concern for traditional higher education from several perspectives.  Just a few years ago during the Bush administration, many of these same faculty members argued against regulation from the Bush administration’s Department of Education.  And I believe they did so effectively and rightly.  Regulation of an industry as diverse as higher education is likely to have numerous unintended consequences, including the potential for limiting new entrants (new colleges and universities) into the education market place and restricting opportunity for students when the U. S. needs greater access to successful higher education experiences.

But my colleagues’ reactions also concern me from their failure to realize that the public is demanding more of higher education – traditional as well as for-profit.  From the perspective of the public, there is a kind of social contract granted to higher education, and they expect higher education to fulfill that contract – providing increased access to students, including those from at-risk backgrounds, lowering the price of entry rather than raising tuition, and employing new digital technology to enhance the quality of the experience and its flexibility and accessibility.

The growth in enrollment in our colleges and universities – especially for Hispanics and African Americans – has come primarily in for-profit rather than traditional colleges and universities.  The price of traditional higher education is on the rise again because states cannot afford their colleges and universities anymore, and some of the most innovative uses of the digital revolution is coming from the for-profit sector.  After all, because it is for-profit, it has the capital to invest in technology.

It seems to me that the reaction to the seeming plight of the for-profit sector will be temporary – in light of expectations from the public for traditional higher education and in light of the capacity of the for-profit sector to invest in substantial improvements that meet the public’s expectations for access, cost-effective pricing and innovation.

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