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Online Schools: A Safe Alternative to Brick-and-Mortar Universities?

Online education

We cannot turn on the news today without hearing something about an industry that went relatively unnoticed just a few years ago – online education. Online education, and specifically the for-profit education sector, has become a political cause, a workers-rights cause, a concern for those who closely watch and monitor the quality of higher education in this country, and one of great controversy.

Rightfully, many for-profit educational companies have been hit hard in recent years for their lack of ethics in recruiting, retaining and educating students that they claim to benefit. A Department of Justice report showcased universities using unscrupulous methods to get new “customers”, or students. In some cases, schools did not educate students about debt, financial aid, student loans, or even how long the program would take. Those schools have been largely weeded out in the education sector.

This “new model” of for-profit education hasn’t set well with some who believe that it should be a sacrificial business, and often run (or at least highly regulated) by the government.  It’s even taken some time for the business sector to warm up to the idea of online education.

Recent studies show that today, over 80% of managers consider an online degree to be equally as good as a traditional degree when considering an employee for hire; but this number was only around 40% just five years ago. Many attribute this to the general acceptance of online degrees and the notion that students can work just as hard (or harder) in an online program – and in some cases, managers having an online degree themselves.

The need for a new idea

Yet still, the reports and attacks on the for-profit and online education sector continue to pummel the industry, at a great expense for the students enrolled and the professors providing the education. Some have lodged complaints that there should be “no such thing as a CEO in education”, only a President. But does it matter what we call it? I have worked for “Presidents” in education that would not know how to run a business or a school if their lives depended on it.

Some of us like the concept of a CEO in education. It is a CEOs job to ensure shareholder value in public companies, which requires that companies provide a good product with good outcomes, or customers won’t come back. I feel “safer” with a degree governed by a CEO than I do a “President”, with often wonky credentials and an inarticulate demeanor and practically no real life experience outside of their “ivory tower” of academia. It isn’t bad to have a real business person looking out for your degree and its reputation.

Those who attack for profit education also seem to be forgetting one of the main reasons they are “pro education” in the first place. Education is supposed to level the playing field and allow everyone an opportunity for personal and professional growth. It should be a benefit to society and offer opportunity to those who did not have a chance to go to school and earn a better living in what we refer to as traditional student years.

Education level and jobs

We know the unemployment rate drops in half for those with a bachelor’s degree, and half again for those with a master’s degree. Like it or not, many of the schools in the for-profit education sector have focused their target market on students who have been economically or socially disadvantaged. Students with poor grades, adults who had a family early and had to get “any job” to pay the bills and didn’t have a chance to go back to school, and adults who are struggling now to hold down a decent paying job and a family life. For-profit online programs also help those who cannot sit in a conventional classroom night after night while the kids are home; single parents, single income households, and those in very demanding or unconventional jobs. They only get to do their work after the family goes to bed at night and the bills are paid.

In comes online education and for-profit colleges as a solution. Has anyone thought of the damage that would occur if for-profit colleges did not exist? What about the military who are often deployed and still doing homework to come home to their family – and a degree? The schools serving these populations are often high-risk high-reward schools; they take on a lot of risk with students who potentially cannot repay loans or could fail out of the program.

I work every day with students who have had a second shot a new career, advancement or even just earning a decent living wage because of online and for-profit colleges. Students need to make a solid choice, invest in a good school and understand what they are committing to, but “legislators” need to stay out of the way. This has become a political issue instead of what it should be, a personal decision.