It is no secret that higher education has become the focus of the media spotlight. Good, bad, or indifferent, students, political candidates, and the public want to see some big changes. A major focus of the negative scrutiny centers on the for-profit education sector. We have all read the stories about Corinthian Colleges, ITT, and the University of Phoenix. The Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have increasingly sanctioned those institutions whose financial practices harm students, and unfortunately, this has focused even greater attention on for-profit institutions.
In the same breath, the Department of Education announced last week the launch of a pilot program designed to allow students to access federal loans and grants in support of their enrollment in coding bootcamps, MOOCs, or other educational providers outside the traditional higher education sector. (Read more about the Pilot Program here.) The idea is rooted in embracing innovation, meeting a growing need, and increasing students’ access by providing the financial resources necessary to attend these alternative programs in an effort to fill the growing skills gap in America.
The common denominator between Corinthian Colleges, ITT, coding bootcamps, and MOOCs, comes down to seeking and maintaining access to federal financial aid. Up until the most recent past, for-profit institutions were applauded for offering students educational alternatives that met the needs of a growing population of working adult students. While the abuses of students and federal tax payers’ dollars are very real and should never be condoned, the resulting negative focus on for-profit institutions as an entire sector is misplaced. For-profit educational providers are viewed as institutions solely focused on profit-making instead of a type of tax category. The truth is that there are a variety of for-profit institutions who choose not to seek participation in federal financial aid and instead offer low cost educational options.
There is room for improvement throughout all of higher education, but misleading students, aggressively focusing on enrollment increases, and emphasizing marketing resources over student success are hardly practices unique to the for-profit education sector. All higher education institutions regardless of tax status are looking for opportunities to set themselves apart and survive during these challenging times. The danger of painting all for-profit institutions with the same broad brushstrokes is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Higher education, at its core, is about access and dissemination of knowledge that prepares individuals to meaningfully contribute to society. Students need access to a variety of quality educational options and this should be the unified focus of higher education. The message is clear, there has been a shift in focus away from enrollment and access toward access and student outcomes. Higher education as an industry can apply the internal pressure necessary to eliminate undesirable behavior and change a culture.
A weak link in a chain causes the whole chain to become ineffective. When there is a weakness in one area, it affects us all. It is not until we invest in solutions to strengthen our weakest members that we can begin to have a positive impact for all students. Once we take ownership as one, we can make a difference for all.
Regardless of organizational structure, what solutions does your institution offer to meet students' needs?