Monday, December 5, 2011

Living for the New U

Does anyone really like higher education today? Professors lament the loss of teaching as central focus; students condemn the system’s apparent aimlessness; parents fear skyrocketing costs; and legislators complain that no one seems answerable for anything. Andrew S. Rosen, president of Kaplan University, contributes an alternative in Rebooting for the New Talent Economy, if readers can overlook Rosen’s own counter-dogmatic limitations.

Rosen begins with a tour of today’s conventional college landscape. Many schools have become obsessed with Ivy League prestige, attempting to match Harvard in research, teaching, and gravitas. Yet no American school can match Harvard’s multi-billion-dollar endowment or nearly four centuries of history. So other universities find end runs to boost various rankings, including accouterments that contribute little to education.

Too many schools, especially private non-profits and Division I state universities, compete on amenities rather than academics. The surge in colleges has not improved the student pool, and there’s no prestige margin in remedial liberal arts. So top universities become luxury resorts, without improving learning. Schools compete on athletic programs that bleed money, dorm and dining facilities that practically deserve Michelin stars, and recreational facilities that only attract teenagers who don’t need to work.

In reaction against this trend, the free market has responded with private, for-profit universities, like Rosen’s own Kaplan. The rise of these schools, which currently outpaces conventional ecucation, has earned the ire of the old guard. Yet these schools meet a real need. Since they’re primarily trade schools, they benefit from teaching by working professionals in the field. And they work well for non-traditional students.

Andrew S. Rosen
As they should, since non-trads may be the future of education. While educational prestige turns on the ability to attract teens, many of my best students have been adults with families and careers. Adults know what they want from education, and what they’re willing to do to get it. Football championships, campus nightlife, and mall-like student unions don’t impress them much. Education outcomes and career placement mean more.

For-profit schools have the metrics to measure outcomes, while conventional colleges generally measure inputs, like test scores and GPAs. If longer-standing schools feel threatened by for-profit universities, perhaps it’s because for-profit schools accurately measure what students want, and provide it. Schools like my own small regional university could profit from studying these newcomers, shifting focus off teenagers with huge parental bankrolls, onto the non-trads who most want to learn.

Moreover, online learning offers untapped potential for real, cutting-edge learning. When I first dipped my toes into that water a decade ago, promises vastly exceeded what the technology could deliver. Not so any longer. While online classes lack the immediacy of classroom face time, and require significant self-discipline from students, they also offer personalized instruction and malleable scheduling that brick-and-mortar buildings never can.

I have previously been leery of for-profit schools, for reasons Rosen concedes: short-term corporate fiscal horizons don’t jibe with education’s long-term nature. By straddling these worlds, for-profit schools form a new beast, neither fish nor fowl, that must negotiate the interests of two constituencies. Yet Rosen makes a persuasive case that such schools can do so effectively.

Unfortunately, Rosen has his own blinders on. He attempts to dismantle critics’ complaints against for-profit schools using metrics that favor him. For instance, he highlights established schools like Strayer, DeVry, and Phoenix, dodging the reality that unaccredited fly-by-night “colleges” have sprung up for quick profit. This reduces his critics to mere sour grapes, even though legitimate criticisms exist.

This comes across near the end, when Rosen admits “Private-sector colleges have room to improve,” after systematically dismissing nearly every criticism raised. Though he scarcely mentions his own university, preventing this book descending into mere advertising, Rosen’s attitude toward for-profit colleges is unstintingly glowing. To hear him talk, only office park colleges offer good education these days.

Moreover, Rosen’s focus on for-profit colleges gives him tunnel vision on where real innovation is happening in education today. Ingenious developments are arising within the conventional academic environment. New curricula, new schools of pedagogy, and even new philosophies of education, have all debuted in recent years to meet the very lacks Rosen names. Yet they don’t merit even one page of Rosen’s time.

For his limitations, Rosen brings new attention to a sector of educational innovation that has been merely caricatured before. As Rosen asserts, America’s economic future demands we produce educated, ambitious workers. Even if for-profit schools aren’t education’s future, they at least illuminate how conventional colleges can better serve our diverse, growing student bodies.

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