The Issues Facing For-Profit Online Universities. Michael E. Kutch. New Jersey City University

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1 Running head: ONLINE FOR-PROFIT UNIVERSITIES 1 The Issues Facing For-Profit Online Universities Michael E. Kutch New Jersey City University EDTC 676: Effective Models of E-Learning Dr. Carnahan

2 ONLINE FOR-PROFIT UNIVERSITIES 2 For many, online degrees are associated with the for-profit model of post-secondary education and are viewed as inferior to degrees obtained through more traditional face-to-face instruction in conventional brick and mortar institutions. The perceptions of online, for-profit degrees and the institutions that grant them stem from the unique niche that online for-profit institutions evolved to fill and are the confluence of a number of factors associated with both the nature of for-profit education and the perceived effectiveness of internet-based learning. Contrary to popular perception, for-profit institutions are not a new phenomenon (Kinser, 2006; Tierney, 2011). For-profit education has evolved from schools that specialized in providing job skills to those who needed them for career advancement. By foregoing the amenities associated with traditional colleges and universities, such as residence halls, athletics, and student-life, these schools could focus on providing focused courses at odd hours, often in rented buildings, close to the student s home (Tierney, 2011). As a consequence of the different goals of these schools, both the students and faculty differed from those in traditional colleges and universities. Out of this model evolved a system of for-profit schools that addressed the needs of a unique niche of adults not served by traditional colleges and universities, such as those from working class, minority, or immigrant communities with non-traditional work schedules and virtually no experience with traditional colleges and universities (Clark, 2011; Kinser, 2006; Tierney, 2011). The transition from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy in the early years of this century, and its consequential need for larger post-secondary-educated workforce, coupled with the simultaneous growth of the internet as a means to provide content online, fueled the growth of for-profit online degree programs. These programs meet the needs of their students by specializing in providing accredited degrees entirely online using very rigidly designed courses

3 ONLINE FOR-PROFIT UNIVERSITIES 3 that are offered to large numbers of students by many instructors, each facilitating the dissemination of the same curriculum. Unlike traditional universities, these instructors do not pursue a research agenda, nor do they make instructional decisions regarding curriculum (Kinser, 2006; Sawchuk, 2013; Tierney, 2011). This eliminates the need for instructors to possess advanced degrees, thus increasing the pool of potential instructors while further reducing the cost of implementing such programs. As businesses, these programs exist to fulfill this niche and make a profit. These factors, the for-profit model, online learning, student demographics, and the means of accreditation are all separate but related factors that contribute to the issues surrounding for-profit, online degree programs (Elliot, 2014; Liu, 2011). The for-profit nature of the programs, coupled with the type of student they have evolved to serve, promote abuses that have tarnished the reputation of these programs. Online programs use accreditation as an incentive to bring in larger enrollments. Tierney (2011) notes that accreditation evolved into an important benchmark for many for-profit institutions because it meant that these programs could attract students that were not only part-time working adults but also increasingly first-generation college-goers from low-income families (p. 28). The ability to grant an accredited degree meant the potential to expand into a new market, one that attracts more than simply those looking for additional job skills. This became a way for the online, for profit industry to attract first in the family college students from families typically intimidated by the practices of traditional higher education (Elliot, 2014; Liu, 2011; Tierney, 2011). Online universities had the power to attract, enroll, and, given their online nature, start students in coursework immediately, outside of the traditional university schedule. With accreditation came not only the the traditional goal of conferring legitimacy on colleges and their programs but what Conn (2014) characterizes as a far more consequential role: Students

4 ONLINE FOR-PROFIT UNIVERSITIES 4 attending institutions that are not accredited are ineligible for federal financial aid, money that is indispensable to the budgets of most American colleges (p. 22). Student loans allowed these educational corporations to accept large numbers of disadvantaged students, for profit, with few consequences if these students did not succeed nor remain with the program. Tierney (2011) claims that if federal and state aid had been unavailable to attendees of the for-profit colleges and universities, their growth would not have been anything akin to what it has been (p. 28). To facilitate the accreditation process so essential to offering federal loan based degrees to their target demographic, online for profit programs sought alternative accreditation procedures through new national, as opposed to regional accreditation associations. Traditional public and non-profit universities and colleges seek accreditation from regional accreditation associations deemed the gold standard by traditional academia (Clark, 2011, p. 68). For profits, with their non-traditional faculty and purely online course delivery often look to the national accreditation agencies rather than the stringent regional accreditation process. These characteristics promote the unethical recruiting tactics often employed by the forprofit industry. These tactics include preying on students likely to finance their education through federal loans and military benefits, baselessly promising high paying careers upon completion, and accepting students without the proper academic background because there is no incentive to graduate these students; the for-profit institution will collect tuition via the federal loan process whether or not the student succeeds or defaults on their loan (Elliot, 2014; Liu, 2011; Tierney, 2011). Further, credits earned in nationally accredited programs cannot transfer into more traditional regionally accredited programs, stranding students with expensive credits that cannot be applied to either employment or further education (Clark, 2011). As abhorrent as these practices are, they are not the product of the online nature of these courses and not a

5 ONLINE FOR-PROFIT UNIVERSITIES 5 reflection of the potential of online learning. However, because most for-profit programs are online programs, employers and traditional university programs often associate these negative practices with online education in general. While there is little experimental research that compares the quality of an online degree program with a traditional face-to-face program (Sawchuk, 2013), there are studies that clearly indicate that online degrees are perceived to be less rigorous, have lower standards, and do not develop the characteristics that employers and traditional universities demand (By, 2003; DeFluer & Adams 2004; Raj, 2010). Additionally, these reports show little change in perception over almost a decade of research by Adams et al. (Adams & DeFluer, 2006; Adams, Lee, & Cortese, 2013). Only Morgan (2005) suggests support for online degrees, citing that: (1) the content learned is more important than the name of the school providing the experience, and (2) online degrees provide the flexibility and convenience that modern professionals demand. Public school teachers are an interesting exception to the tactics of for-profit education. Sawchuk (2013) attributes to explosive growth of for-profit teacher education programs largely to the demands of career changes, which need a convenient educational alternative to traditional university programs. Although not discussed in Sawchuk (2013), teachers salaries are usually based not only on years of experience, but the number of credits beyond their bachelor s degree. In many public schools, regional accreditation is the standard that validates the credits used to move up the salary guide. Additionally, many districts offer financial assistance to pay tuition toward these credits. In this case, online, for profit degree programs serve a unique purpose. They are able to provide teachers with little concern for academic prestige a feasible path toward salary advancement. This author believes this helps to explain the explosive growth of for-profit, online degrees in education.

6 ONLINE FOR-PROFIT UNIVERSITIES 6 References Adams, J. & DeFleur, M. H. (2004). The acceptability of online degrees as a criteria for admission to graduate programs. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 16(1), Adams, J. & DeFleur, M. H. (2006). The acceptability of online degrees earned as a credential for obtaining employment. Communication Education, 55(1), Adams, J., Lee, S., & Cortese, J. (2012). The acceptability of online degrees: Principals and hiring practices in secondary schools. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 12(4), By, K. J. (2003, Jan 28). Career journal: Online-degree programs surge, but do they pass hiring tests? Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from Clark, J. (2011). The real deal on for-profit colleges. Kiplinger s Personal Finance, 65(5), Conn, P. (2014). The great accreditation farce. Chronicle of Higher Education, 60(40), 22. Elliot, P. (2014). Proposed rules target for-profit colleges over debt. Community College Week, 26(17), 11. Kinser, K. (2006). What Phoenix doesn t teach us about for-profit higher education. Change, 38(4), Liu, M. (2011). Do for-profit schools pass the test?. State Legislatures, 37(6), Morgan, M. F. (2005). Employers can embrace online degree credential. Northern Colorado Business Report, 11(5) Retrieved from

7 ONLINE FOR-PROFIT UNIVERSITIES 7 Sawchuk, S. (2013, October 9). Online teacher prep proliferates: But for-profits dominate market. Education Week, 33(7), 1 Tierney, W. G. (2011). Too big to fail: The role of for-profit colleges and universities in American higher education. Change, 43(6),

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