• September 3, 2015

For-Profit Learning Is Always Cheaper, and Other Myths

4 Myths About For-Profit Online Learning 1

Randy Lyhus for The Chronicle

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close 4 Myths About For-Profit Online Learning 1

Randy Lyhus for The Chronicle

For-profit higher education, particularly when delivered online, has consistently drawn attention for being efficient, scalable, and innovative. Successful for-profits tend to run smoothly at relatively low costs, and they invest generously in the kind of research that helps improve both the quality and delivery of their education.

These practices, along with flexible scheduling, robust student services, relevant programs, and successful recruitment practices, have made it possible for online programs at for-profit institutions to expand as quickly as student interest has grown. But in doing so, and in serving student populations previously underserved by traditional institutions, the for-profit sector has recently come under the type of scrutiny previously associated with the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Behind the harsh scrutiny by the Education Department and Congress (one former Ed Department official called it a "witch hunt") is the fact that online education—a medium that has only grudgingly been adopted by traditionalists—has become very attractive to nontraditional students, who make up the fastest-growing segment of higher education.

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This situation has turned out to be a major problem for proprietary schools because such students, who tend to be disproportionately eligible for Pell Grants and subsidized loans, are the most likely to drop out, default on their loans, and start their careers at lower salary levels than their traditional, first-time, full-time peers. The latter tend to be both single and financially dependent, and to work fewer hours or not at all—characteristics of students who are most likely to complete their degree.

Ironically, online education, maligned because it has attracted such a large numbers of at-risk students who are failing to succeed, is being promoted by a growing number of governors and the Obama administration as a way to educate more students more cheaply. But as I argue below, online is not necessarily cheaper than face-to-face education.

To add some light to the debate on for-profits, I would like to dispel several myths concerning proprietary online education that appear to be sustained by a general lack of information.

The first myth is that online education has been aggressively marketed by for-profit colleges and universities because it makes possible huge classes of hundreds, if not thousands, of students, thereby sharply reducing instructional costs.

The widely held belief that online education can lower faculty costs (the single biggest expenditure at most colleges) and reduce the need to build more buildings explains why many state officials and the executive branch of the federal government support online education. When it comes to public institutions, where some online courses can have as many as 400 students, and 45 to 100 students per course is not uncommon, the belief appears to be grounded in truth.

However, while for-profit institutions such as Capella and Kaplan Universities and the University of Phoenix educate hundreds of thousands of students online, their officials report that the average enrollment per course ranges from only nine to 18.

Accordingly, at Phoenix, as reported for August of this year, 470,800 students were being served by over 33,000 faculty members, for a student-faculty ratio of just over 14 to 1. This suggests that at the more successful proprietary online programs, a substantial investment must be made to educate each online student.

A second myth, closely related to the first, is that for-profit online courses lack the rigor of their face-to-face counterparts.

In small classes, such as the ones previously mentioned, students have a level of interaction with their professors that is rare at large public institutions, particularly during the first two years, when large lecture classes are common. Small classes allow for frequent assignments and substantial faculty feedback. They also make it difficult to cheat, because instructors have greater knowledge of both the abilities and idiosyncrasies of their students.

Given that most proprietary online programs focus on what a student is expected to know, as determined by experts in the subject matter, the level of rigor could be easily measured by comparing the expected results in these courses to those found at selective institutions. However, until such research is done and made public, any assumption that these courses are easy must be based on mere speculation.

A third myth is that employers are hesitant to hire graduates with degrees earned online from for-profit colleges.

 This is another myth that can be answered empirically. Although much research needs to be done in this area, the research to date, such as that found in the Imagine America Foundation (formerly the Career College Foundation) report "Economic Impact of America's Career Colleges," shows that the degrees and certificates of career colleges, whether earned online or not, are widely recognized by employers. Needless to say, as more heads of human resources become familiar with graduates of online programs, their willingness to hire those graduates can be expected to increase. Furthermore, many of the nation's largest employers, such as Wal-Mart, UPS, and AT&T, have agreements with the larger proprietary online colleges for discounted tuition rates, scholarships, or tuition-reimbursement programs.

A fourth myth is that for-profit online colleges have a responsibility to maximize shareholder value and therefore put profits ahead of educational quality whenever possible.

 One answer to this myth is obvious: Self-interest alone imposes a logic of continuous improvement and quality assurance for any for-profit company working to be or to remain successful. In online higher education, this means that survival and growth (i.e., profitability) depend upon investing not only in the upgrading of operations and the platform used to deliver instruction, but also particularly in the continuous improvement of student achievement. In effect, for-profits have powerful incentives to remain in compliance and produce positive educational results, because if they fail to do so, they will find themselves without students or financial backing.

Online enrollment grows at for-profits because students see them as the best choice, and growth and profitability follow when students succeed in classes and earn degrees. To the extent that they do not, enrollments and profitability will necessarily decline, along with investor interest.

Another way to dispel this myth is to show positive academic and employment results for students in for-profit institutions. Despite the many risk factors of most students attending proprietary institutions, recent research by the Parthenon Group shows that graduation rates in the sector are relatively high—especially in two-year programs, where they surpass those of public community colleges—as are students' postgraduation employment and economic success.

For an example of positive comparative performance, Phoenix demonstrated in its 2008 "Academic Annual Report" that its student-learning results improved at rates equal to or better than those of comparable traditional institutions for similarly situated students. That is, first-year Phoenix students enroll with lower assessment scores than the national average on the Measure of Proficiency and Progress test, administered by the Educational Testing Service. But they reduce that gap significantly by their senior year, as measured by their improvement on the MAPP. Compared with students from comparable nonprofit and public institutions, Phoenix students demonstrated similar to better levels of improvement throughout the course of their education, especially in English and mathematics.

Disclosure: I am president of Nexus Research and Policy Center, an independent, nonprofit group whose primary donors are currently the Apollo Group, parent company of Phoenix, and the John G. Sperling Foundation. While we acknowledge that Nexus's objectivity may be questioned as a consequence of the sources that finance it, the recognized importance of its independence has led both Apollo and the foundation to not interfere with its governance, editorial policy, or research agenda, which is based on government and sector data available to all scholars.

Aside from the myths surrounding the for-profit sector and its online programs, one thing is sure: Given the innovative nature of for-profit education, we can expect this sector to lead the way into the future of online education. Already Phoenix is building a sophisticated technology platform, based on current research in the learning sciences and populated with computer-based smart tutors. Its expected capacity to adapt to students' needs will make this platform capable of improving the learning experience and performance of a broad range of learners, including those who are failing in today's online courses.

Maybe when innovations such as this one go mainstream, most of the myths will be dispelled. I believe that, so I'll hold my breath.

Jorge Klor de Alva is president of Nexus Research and Policy Center and a former president of the University of Phoenix. He was previously a professor of anthropology at Princeton University and the University of California at Berkeley.


1. washingtonwarrior - November 01, 2010 at 10:15 am

Myths aren't myths if they are true. All of these so-called myths are, in fact, realities. For-profits and online courses will be the downfall of the American education system.

2. softshellcrab - November 01, 2010 at 10:22 am

This article is basically dishonest. At my school, for higher level courses in the major (any course beyond principles) we will never accept any course taken at a for-profit, such as Phoenix or Kaplan or Devry. We know from long experience that for profits and online programs have no rigour or grading standards, and are merely selling degrees.

We also will never accept any non-principles course if it is online, and we don't care if it was taught online by an Ivy League school. Online means there were no real standards and the students learned very little. Self study and graded homework copied from answer books they buy online. If you took it online the first time, get ready to take it now "for real".

Our students who come from Phoenix, Devry, etc., or who had a course online the first time, and are forced to retake the course, REPEATEDLY, EACH AND EVERY ONE OF THEM, tell us that our course, at our not-particlularly-prestigious state supported school, was light years more rigorous and content filled than what they had at the for-profit or online. They say in comparison their for-profit or online course was a joke.

Phoenix (the author's old school" is a joke. Don't forget the Business Week article about how they were caught recruiting homeless alcoholics to get government loans and sign up for U. of Phoenix classes. You can see it here:


The author of the above drivel should be forced to write that entire article on the blackboard 50X.

3. betterschools - November 01, 2010 at 11:30 am

This article is impeccably honest. I would challenge anyone to contravene the author's assertions with logically relevant and scientifically sound facts to the contrary.

- As part of much larger audits, my firm determines classroom size independent of the influence of any particular university. The last time we measured, the University of Phoenix averaged around 14.8 students per instructor. This is among the lowest in the industry. As a point of contrast, the undergraduate online classes of the large publics have substantially larger ratios, often above 50:1.

- With respect to the issues of rigor and quality (defined here as outcomes) I would refer any open-minded and emotionally dispassionate reader to the many refereed scientific studies and to the internal research programs of the universities themselves. In 2009, the Department of Education aggregated a few hundred research studies of interest in a meta-analysis.

- In this, our 16th year, my firm conducted its 20,000th in-depth employer interview, more than any agency or firm in the nation. In these interviews, conducted for public and private universities alike, we discuss education needs and how well local providers are meeting them. Here are the most universal generalizations: (a) on balance, employers don't care or don't know where or via what learning platform their employees were educated, (b) a small number of employers (primarily in allied health disciplines) prefer local for-profit schools, (c) a small number of employers (primarily in engineering and advanced technical areas) have preferred relationships with large public universities.

Personally, I find it distasteful when churlish individuals hide behind their mother's apron of anonymity while calling an honest person a liar. It says more than I want to know about their character.

Robert W Tucker

4. engberk - November 01, 2010 at 12:22 pm

This article and the comments made by "betterschools" fail to include the number of adjunct instructional faculty members employed by for-profit institutions. Both writers fail to reveal what percentage of the operating budget is devoted to advertisement and marketing. In addition, although the author of this article maintains that the "level of rigor could be easily measured," he fails to cite internal and external research that has been done. "betterschools" does give specific information about internal research studies. I would like to hear more about this.

Kimberly Engber

5. dwilliams5 - November 01, 2010 at 12:55 pm

I support Kimberly Engber's request for more information. Not-for-profits will need to pay careful attention to the methods for-profits use when answering questions related to rigor, etc. Those same hard questions are coming soon for most of the rest of higher education. Having just attended the IUPUI assessment conference, I'm pretty sure that the external benchmarks to which we'd like to require the for-profits to live up to just don't exist for many non-professional disciplines, whether taught by non- or for-profit institutions.

I would challenge softshellcrab to pony up the studies from which (s)he draws the conclusions about lack of rigor. It's one thing to make those assertions based on anecdotal experiences, but I'd rather see methodologically sound studies that support the assertion that transfer students from on-line programs are less successful in face to face upper division courses than other students transferring courses into his/her school. I'm not suggesting that they are better prepared than (s)he suggests, rather, I'm merely calling for the research that bears out those assertions.

As Engber suggests, it's high time to start drawing conclusions based on data rather than merely opinion and intuition.

6. maverick2 - November 01, 2010 at 12:56 pm

I can't speak to all the myths listed in the article, but I can say this:

1. Our institution is primarily online, but our students perform consistently equal or better than "traditional" students when they transfer to a traditional university.

2. We are often told by our students that our classes are more rigorous than in-person classes.

3. We require in-person mid-term and final exams for most classes.

4. We assiduously pursue plagiarism and other forms of cheating.

5. We participate in many initiatives on transparency of our performance.

6. We have multiple starts. This allows students to get their education when they need and want it. It helps students deal with family life situations.

We need to move on. We should be working together to improve student learning no matter what method is used!!

7. betterschools - November 01, 2010 at 03:27 pm

I am pleased to see a general direction in these replies that calls for personal experience, political bias, and unsubstantiated "theoretical" presuppositions to be replaced by objective evidence and the scientifically valid methodologies necessary to secure such evidence. In my judgment, this approach -- a process or way of life more than an end -- represents half of the contribution to continuous quality improvement, the other half being each institution's culture with respect to embracing and managing change.

While I assume only the best of intentions, I would call attention to the logical fallacy in 'engberk's' implication with respect to adjunct faculty. (The same goes for marketing budgets, etc.) First, I believe that all institutions should be transparent with respect to all relevant metrics, these included. In the case of faculty credentials, this would include not only formal education and teaching status but professional experiences and achievements as they are relevant to approved courses (e.g., how many engineers and programmers has someone teaching management in the technical enterprises managed, to what results, and for how long).

This said, I think 'engberk' has confused teaching status (professor, associate, assistant, full-time, part-time, etc.). S/he seems to be referring to the variable describing full-time/part-time status as a dependent variable functioning as an instantiation or proxy measure of institutional or academic quality. This assumption begs the scientific question with an obvious bias. In fact, teaching status dimensions (level, credentials, etc.) are independent variables that need to be assessed, along with dozens upon dozens of others, for their contribution to the family of dependent variables that comprise the construct "quality" in higher education. Such variables include learning outcomes, graduation rates, time to degree, placement, 1/3/5 year downstream effects, professional licensure (when applicable), employer impact, etc.

We can and should engage in vigorous debate leading to agreed-upon measures for all relevant indicators of quality as they apply to each specific degree (so called, "institutional quality" is largely irrelevant). Thereafter, if we are rational, we are obligated to impartially assess each independent variable (such as those associated to instructor credentials) in terms it contribution to variance in explaining the dependent variable of interest.

Calling for "objective data" means, first, that we set aside our preconceptions, biases, and habitual ways of viewing things. All independent variables must be on the table and under the microscope. Take one off and you become less than fully rational, placing your biases above the pursuit of truth.

8. trendisnotdestiny - November 01, 2010 at 03:52 pm

@ all readers

Welcome to salesmanship 101! Take legitmate criticisms of the on-line industry and create uncertainty. Get people to 'Open Up' and consider a skewed history reframed. (similar to Climate change opponents, origins of the financial crisis in 2008 etc.)

Do this by using industry insiders to hire, publish and incentivize the direction of on-line learning through op-eds, funding online studies (manufacturing research) and through financial reorganization during periods of economic instability.

Next, create objectives, nationally stated goals for achievement and assessment that fit within the stated mission and require bureaucratic involvement not unlike forensic accounting for administrators. This mode is important because this is where specific pockets of profit are identified and isolated for shareholders; they have their media craft the narrative in concert.

After that, start changing the rules around accreditation, government subsidies and admission standards. This occurs in concert with the amplification of "THE TEACHING PROBLEM", where educators are scapegoats, students are underperforming and are being asked to carry extra burdens with fewer resources and parents are angry that their retirements are going to FU college executives. The shade of red matches the football uniform as the parents come into on football weekends to see a corporate mini-mall inside their child's school pay en masse for the privilege to sell product to little Johnny/Jenny in his/her dorm room...

Sometime later, industry is so entrenched into the culture that there is little separation between an authentic campus culture and commercialism. Old graduates come back to campus to see the new students and resources that they help fund and the private little community is owned and privatized.... This is when you start to hear the calls for cutting costs and expenses at FU college. Faculty and shared governance become persona non grata as the university molts into a personage: homo oeconomicus. What is up is now down and sanctimony of change infects of the DNA host cell of student body like mononucleosis....

The last stage here in this re-branding charade is to protect the profit by hiring more administrators who use tactics of assumed consent (or a mentality of TINA - there is no alternative) to initiate these unpopular cuts. Reducing and de-skilling behavior and social patterns of the professorate.

Folks, it always starts with a meticulously crafted re-writing of the myths to fit the new narrative; left to technocrats to implement..... Softshellcrab is spot on here! We all see what is going on here

9. catlkelley - November 01, 2010 at 04:26 pm

There is a lot of heat in these comments but not much light. I am an IT administrator in a private non-profit university, and have no vested interest whatsoever in for-profit institutions. And I am certainly aware of the marketing problems and other financial issues that have caused them so many problems.

However, when it comes to quality of education, I think people need to keep an open mind. I have met people doing assessment in many universities - public, non-profit, and for-profit - nation-wide. By far the most comprehensive and serious assessment (formative as well as summative) that I have seen has come out of the for-profit sector. They feel that they have to do this for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that they need to prove their credibility.

It's not all sweetness and light however. One reason that they can do such thorough assessment is that they are able to push the assessment issue a lot farther than we can in the non-profit sector, because faculty are treated very differently. And I don't mean better. Bear in mind that the mission of such institutions is entirely different than other areas of higher ed. It's all about teaching, zero about research, so issues of academic freedom and faculty welfare that are near and dear to our hearts don't apply - at least to the same extent. It's a whole different game for their faculty.

Still, in my hiring role I would have no problems at all accepting a potential hire with a degree from one of the for-profits. Somebody on my staff is doing a degree this way and I have reviewed the work - it is rigorous and the standards are high.

In other words I think there is a threat there, just not the threat that people have identified in these comments.

10. jhudak - November 01, 2010 at 04:43 pm

Washington Warrior, I am with you!

To the outside world, we are all the same. We in the academe do not know how to describe what we do (to those in business world) in a meaningful way so that they understand why what we do is important. On-line, face-to-face....they see no difference. On-line saves time, right? it's cheaper.....yada, yada....And we really don't need all those tenured professors....

It will not take long until the whole system in place is dismantled, and once it is gone...it is truly gone.

11. bwainscott - November 01, 2010 at 10:15 pm

@betterschools, thank you for adding some scientific method to this discussion. In addition to the outcomes expressed in the DOE study you reference (hybrid ranked #1, followed by online, then face-to-face third based on student outcomes), can we consider the advantage to the student through the adjunct model based on faculty experience? Not to downplay many gifted academics, but is there not an advantage to the student to learn from someone who combines current field experience and position in the industry with formal academic preparation? I know that for myself, I enjoyed learning from those "currently in the trenches" as widely seen in the adjunct model. No anonymity here, my username is actually my name.

Robert Wainscott

12. lizziec - November 01, 2010 at 10:15 pm

While I do not have "objective data" on for-profit or non-profit institutions of higher education, I can reference my own experiences in both sectors as a faculty member and an administrator in the public, non-profit area. In the public institutions, there is some sort of screening for academic ability before tuition monies are collected and student loans and Pell grants are processed. At Research I institutions, many students simply do not make it in due to academic deficiencies. Public community colleges maintain open access policies, but students must take and pass developmental or remedial coursework (or test out of it) before being progressed into their chosen degree or certificate programs.

In the for-profit sector that I have worked in as a faculty member, students are recruited, placed into courses, and very often are not even functionally literate; they are incapable of reading a simple report and writing a coherent paragraph on the topic presented. Their grammar and spelling are middle-school level, at best. Their ability to grasp complex concepts is non-existent and the reality is that even if the ridiculous "rubrics" that are required by the school allow these students to pass and graduate, many -if not most- of them will never be able to land a position in their chosen field at anything other than entry-level, which they could have done without the degree, and without having to borrow (finance with interest) more than $25,000 for the fancy paper with "A.S. Degree" and their name stenciled on it.

That these for-profits seem to target the less sophisticated consumers of higher education and saddle these students with decades of debt for largely useless degrees is to me, the most disturbing aspect of this entire debate. This is too often overlooked in the back-and-forth between advocates for and critics of the for-profit education sector.

Lastly - anyone who has any teaching credibility knows that students cannot learn in 5 or 6 weeks of reading online articles and posting lame comments to a discussion board the same amount (breadth and depth) of material as they would get in a traditional 15-week semester. I see the value of technology in education and I'm not anti-technology, but the math of the 6-week class doesn't add up.

13. betterschools - November 02, 2010 at 10:56 am

trendisnotdestiny is right to observe the dangers inherent to the fed's goal (including the motivations of fortuitous partners) to nationalize, standardize, and commercialize higher education under a unified national vision. For all its weaknesses, our loosely structured state system with regional accreditation has resulted in a diversity that translates into strength and adaptability.

However, we must be careful to avoid branding the tools of rational inquiry with the goals for which individuals use them. Open, objective, scientifically sound inquiry into teaching and learning is an unqualified good that will lead to better teaching and improved learning. Some of these improvements can be anticipated as extensions of our current proficiencies while others will surprise and delight us. Opposing scientific inquiry into the business of higher education because the findings might be misused is oppressive and anti-intellectual. Few of us burn books these days but the thought lurks in the minds of a few religious and other ideological zealots.

14. 22024814 - November 02, 2010 at 11:40 am

There is both truth and untruth here. More of the later, however.

One assertion that is very-very untrue -- that employers and the public don't hold bias against for profit online colleges. (The data cited to the contrary here is from studies paid for by the for-profit and career college sector.)

Studies of employer perception of distance degrees by GetEducated.com show a clear public and employer bias against most large for profit chanins.

People and employers do prefer and lend more credibility to non-profit and state schools and they much prefer brand name residential schools when it comes to choosing and respecting online degrees.

15. betterschools - November 02, 2010 at 02:35 pm


Since you choose to remain anonymous, I welcome your opinions as one voice but any factual claims you make are inappropriate to anonymity. Saying that an assertion is untrue in the absence of better evidence is argumentative but not scientific. Here are some facts.

- I based my claim about employers' views of education providers on more than 20,000 interviews spanning 16 years. This objective empirical research, conducted by qualified researchers, was not done for the benefit of for-profits. Again, based on 20K+ interviews, and with some exceptions the general direction of which I noted above, employers don't know or don't particularly care if they do know where their employees went to school. Even those who care find this consideration largely irrelevant one the new employee has been on the job a few months. At that point, work performance completely overshadows alma mater.

- While I offer no opinion on Geteducated.com, I call your attention to the fact that they are a lead generation vendor for online programs. They are not an independent research shop. While they do seem to offer unsubstantiated opinions, as do you, I see no evidence of scientific research or the research credentials of their staff.

- I do note that Geteducated.com says the following on their website:

"Keep in mind that two kinds of colleges issue online degrees: those that are online-only (such as the University of Phoenix) and those with campuses that also offer distance learning programs (such as the University of Massachusetts)."

It is difficult to believe that a lead generation vendor could be so profoundly ignorant of such a basic fact. According to several sources I just Googled, half of the University of Phoenix's students attend class on-ground at one of their more than 200 on-ground campuses worldwide. Their first online class graduated seven students in 1989 by which time the University had 15 or 20 traditional campuses, substantially more real estate, even at that time, than occupied by the University of Massachusetts.

- Finally, I note that GetEducated.com does not in fact make the claim you say they made with respect to employer preference (although they do seem to be confused about a lot of other issues). I suggest that you re-read it more carefully.

If you wish to make your identity known and offer some objective data that can be evaluated in the context of your credentials, I would be pleased to discuss it, as would others I am certain.

16. mikpap - November 02, 2010 at 04:16 pm

The article is accurate. The largest providers of online education in Texas are regional public universities. Some programs and courses are of high quality and some are not, just as with for-profits. Traditional and for-profit schools have much more in common than not. Some of the comments here have been made by folks who are in denial. Climb out of the Ivory Tower, it's crumbling.

17. annie6934 - November 02, 2010 at 10:52 pm

Equating online education with for-profit education is not helpful to this discussion. Online education can be and in many instances is just as rigorous, if not more, than onsite education. I have been at a non-profit 4 year private university for 20 years and was committed to onsite teaching until I needed to be away from the campus for a long period of time and was offered the option of teaching online. I was surprised and gratified to find that the work required of the students was not only extremely well-organized and well-thought out, but demanded more of their presence than onsite classes usually do. Online classes can surely be inferior to onsite ones, but this is not necessarily so. The question of for-profits is another one altogether and wedding it to online education is unhelpful to the discussion.

18. archman - November 03, 2010 at 10:01 am

It is hard for educators to accept the big, corporate for-profits for the very reason they exist, to generate revenue.

Unless profit is directly tied into teaching quality (which it is not), I expect the scorn most educators have for corporate for-profits to remain.

Revenues at these schools come almost entirely from warm bodies, and student loans. One could argue that the same might be said for many brick and mortar private for-profits (e.g. Ivy League, SLAC's), but that comparison really doesn't hold water under analysis. We all know why.

As for the quality of online education, well that really boils down to an argument as to what kind of school is being talked about, isn't it? The schools with the greatest faculty incentives to teach well online will do so. It is not difficult to imagine a "good school" for high quality online teaching. One with strong academic freedom and compensation for educators, and little pressure to submit to "quantity over quality" (or graduation vs. learning).

Find those schools, and you will find strong online programs.

19. mdefusco - November 04, 2010 at 07:51 am

I understand why non profit professors are nervous. The for profits have challenged the very basic notion that universities should be designed around professors and in instead designed the apparatus of learning around students (time and place). I also have no issue with people feeling emotionally strong about their view and diligently protecting their own interest. What is most provocative in this discussion is that the for-profit apologists feel perfectly at ease citing empiirical data while the non profits seem perfectly comfortable citing vitriol and diatribe. Is that how we teach dialectic at our more traditional schools?

20. estudiante - November 04, 2010 at 08:12 am

I have a BA and an MPA from well established "brick and mortar schools and recently completed an MA in American History from an on-line school and have had good and not so good learning experiences at each type. Every single one of my online professors had a PhD from a prestigeious university and were published. One had a authored over a dozen books on the Civil War. The classes were small usually there were 5 or six students. Usually you had to submit three papers two relatively short ones and a longer, major one. Additionally, they required weekly email responses to one or more questions and that one respond to the postings of at least two fellow students. For the most part, these intra-student exchanges were excellent because the professors generally insisted that one back-up his or her statements with supporting data and not simply offer opinions. this rarely happend in my face-to-face classes. In some instances the online professors intervened in the discussions but mostly they limited their comments to short follow-up questions or clarifications. It took me three years to complete the 36 credit MA and the courses were 16 weeks in length. One professor was a lazy and his comments to papers were "canned" responses like "great job" and "Keep up the good work" etc. and his weekly intervention was usually limted to a weather report from his home town. they usually began with "Greetings from sunny Xtown where the temperature is..." However most of the professor wrote helpul and brief comments and one professor wrote really detailed and lengthy comments and one seemed more interested in the gramatical aspects of the paper than in the content. Each three credit course cost me under $1,000 and I self financed them on the university's no-interest installment plan - 50% at registration and the rest in two payments. I also incurred book costs but I bought a Kindle and used my local public library for some of the text books that were not on Kindle available or bought books from Half.Com. I also used the online library the University had and was able to access most of the relevent history journals. I was assigned a "personal" librarian and communicated with her on a few occasions with excellent results. I also had a counselor but he and later she, did not seem to be in the "customer service" mode and not true counselors who actually knew the program I was enrolled in. For the most part I did get fairly quick email responses from the professors. One other benefit of online learning was that I did not have to travel to class. I live in a major metropolitan area and the traffic around here is horrendous. Anyway going to an online school is probably the "greenest" way to go to school. No traveling involved and they do not have all those buildings and other facilities to maintain.

I was planning on going for the PhD in hopes of getting a teaching job, but I decided that this was a waste of time and money so I am now concetrating on teaching at the community level in non traditional academic setting like a local history museum or as a program officer in state historic office or as a consultant in a historical consultancy firm. In the meantime I am leading free tours of historic sites in my area and perhaps I can get a paying job in the field of historic/cultural tourism or historic preservation. I did visit a campus that specializes in this field and that offers a post-graduate certificate but it seemed to me that most people seemed to be talking or texting their cell phones or keyboarding on their laptops that there was little human interaction or comraderie. Bottom line I had a good online college experience, the tuition was quite reasonable and i am fairly confident that I will be working in a histrry related field in the near future. There are differences between on line and B&M schools. The results depends on what the student puts into his or her classes and what course of study one persues. almost all of the liberal arts lend themselve to online but perhaps the sciences which require labs or or other foeld like dramatics, physical education which reqire special facilities and equipment are not suitable.

21. prof_truthteller - November 04, 2010 at 10:18 am

To dispel myths, you first need to get the myths right. The for profits aggressively market, not solely because of the huge classes, but because of the huge profits. You make a profit buying low and selling high. Part of that may be large classes, but another part is high fee / high aid. The CHE has published many articles citing the disproportionate share of federal financial aid sucked up by the big for profits. Also, low overhead, low pay, fewer support staff, and lots of other ways to increase profit.

As for online course rigor vs. f2f course rigor, that argument will go on forever- and there's lots of data and all kinds of personal anecdotal information to support both views. What's the real argument here? My opinion, college faculty are one of the last professions in the US not yet outsourced or turned over to a machine or made into the "normal" contingent "who moved my cheese" type labor. Welcome to the educational industry.

Third myth, again a mess of disorganized "data" from surveys and anecdotal evidence. The post graduation employment level of students from both public non profit and private for profit are all over the place, with few consistent markers. My opinion, employers want people who can do the work that needs to be done, quickly, efficiently, accurately, cheaply. Who needs a degree for that, from any school. Public colleges' missions focus on educating a well rounded citizen, without any reference to or expectation of what or how that citizen chooses to participate in society, but only the expectation that they WILL participate. Has nothing to do with the "job" they eventually take. The old jokes about the barista with the philosophy PhD are partly true. But that doesn't mean the barista is a failure, or the college should be blamed. Maybe s/he's a happy barista who volunteers, votes, donates, pays taxes, saves up to own a home, etc. Community colleges, DO provide job training, and every program that does, has community advisory groups, has trade or professional certification or accreditation, internship or work experience programs, etc.

If we need have no fear that quality of product might be compromised due to the profit motive, the counter argument presented is itself an old myth, now repeated so many times people don't recognize it as an old myth and think it's now in the canon. People forget that it was government regulation of the profit motive that prevented pollution and dumping of toxic materials, prevented private enterprise from adulaterating our food and water, and medicines, insisted on regulating the certification of health and medical professions along with others that affect our life and health. Come on, seriously, the profit motive provides for continuous improvement because it relies on customer satisfaction? Just how stupid do you think we readers are? It's an insult to even put that argument forward. Profit-driven corporations have always required oversight, and still manage to get away with lying, cheating, stealing, and even murder or wrongful deaths. It's when that oversight fails that we have these crises, such as the mortgage and financial market meltdown. Where was their concern for "continuous quality improvement" in that scenario? Fact is, there are no intrinsic motivations to keep for profits in line. Of course the government should investigate and regulate, just as we do with every other business that affects human lives.

22. esselan - November 04, 2010 at 11:26 am

I do find it fascinating that all the posters here who disagree with the article seem to be offering the "because I said so" approach, rather than the "and here is the data to support my comments" approach. While I remain skeptical of a picture as rosy as that painted in the article, I would like someone to provide actual, meaningful data demonstrating the reasons behind their wholesale condemnation of online learning.

23. betterschools - November 04, 2010 at 12:35 pm

@mdefusco summarized one distinction nicely when he pointed to the preferences of for-profit's for facts and hard data in contrast to the preferences of some traditionalists posting here for cant and unsubstantiated opinion. As one of many entities, my firm as been immersed in assessing higher education process, outcome, and impact for 16 years. Among things we possess more than 20,000 employer interviews and more than 10 million learner satisfaction records, one-third of which are linked to grades and other variables. So far as I know, we possess the nation's only comment knowledge-base containing several million fully taxonomized records. Our knowledge bases are derived from more than 110 public, independent and for-profit colleges and universities representing most states. We we make generalizations about specific relations in higher education, we base them on these massive datasets and not on our a priori opinions. In the end, our opinions are formed on the generalizations from our findings. This said, we are only one source among many.

In contrast, what evidences do @prof_truthteller, @softshellcrab and their like-minded colleagues offer? Religious-like adherence to patently false beliefs? Misperceptions about for-profits that could be cleared up in a few minutes of fact-checking, class size for example? Negative factoids condemning for-profits and positive factoids supporting their own school (which they refuse to identify), both based largely on outliers? They attack firms like mine as being in bed with the for-profits even though we work with all types, quite possibly their school. Most uninspiring are the facts that they eschew hard data, and display anti-scientific, anti-rational biases that are the likely seeds of destruction to the very social order they seek to preserve. These folks demean the many important things for which the professoriate stands.

John Sperling (founder of University of Phoenix) often remarked, "We have been greatly aided by the quality of our competition." It has never been more true than now and these two examples show up every day to remind us.

24. mdefusco - November 04, 2010 at 12:46 pm

I believe that the for profits make no pretext about their use of federal funds. They enroll people who would never be enrolled in traditional colleges. They provide for students who have been largely ignored by the higher education establishment. Do these new brand of students have different needs (of course). Will they be more likely to fail because of insufficient preparation? (again self obvious). But it was our President who challenged all Americans to be better through higher education (in fact he set a very high bar - that EVERY AMERICAN get at least one year of higher education (after high school) by 2020. Do you see traditional not for profits and publics scurrying to build and hiring to meet this new demand? Who else but the market facing institutions will add the required seats (or servers) to meet this goal and why would anyone invest so without some return (ask your legislators the next time you want to hire new faculty or issue the bonds to build enough classroom space to accomodate the additional 29 million students). I hear all kinds of anecdotes about personal experience, but who is going to solve this problem?

25. betterschools - November 04, 2010 at 01:53 pm

The use of federal funds for students loans just might be the best deal the taxpayer has going for him right now. Let us not forget (a) that the feds took over student loans last year and (b) that they are a very profitable business. Thus, the more students borrow, including students at for-profits and including the default costs, the more money the taxpayers make. It is true that taxpayers are "forced" to make these loans in the same sense that they are "forced" to buy an F-18 Fighter or build a bridge in Idaho, but the direct returns to the treasury are better than anything else they are getting in today's market. Many, perhaps most, taxpayer "investments" produce no direct returns. They are made in the interest of downstream benefits, many of which never materialize. Student loans to for-profit universities produce all the downstream benefits of having an educated citizenry plus immediate profits. Thus, as taxpayers, we should be happy that students borrow as they do.

As for the "loan scam" issue, student loans are cleaner than any other financial sector, by quite a bit, even though that's not saying much. Also, even though there are relatively few true defaults (Harkin and others have hyped it; most are temporary interruptions), we collect from $106 to $126 on every $100 defaulted. However, when loans were in the private sector, default collections costs were substantial, largely because collection was outsourced at a substantial discount to premium. Because this is the first full year that the feds owned the system, no one knows what the new collection costs will be (collection costs must be subtracted from that additional profit coming from fines, etc. to arrive at a net profit/loss value). My guess is that collection costs will be substantially lower than when loans were private. The feds have a national delinquent collection system in place to identify and capture monies flowing to those who owe the IRS, child support, Medicare, etc. It is not inconceivable that the feds will make a net profit or at least break even in the aggregate on defaulted loans as well. Borrowers have to die to get of the obligation.

However pleased we should be about student loans as taxpayers, we should be seriously concerned as citizens. Loan values are excessively high. The feds are encouraging students to borrow far in excess of tuition or their projected ability to repay the loans. Tuition has outpaced economic growth for so long that even solid middle-class families must go heavily into debt to go to college. Nothing proposed or accomplished by President Obama has addressed the cost or access issues. His plans can only be described as magical thinking that community colleges can somehow step up to meet the nation's education goals. It is clear that he doesn't understand the realities. The President's plans will lead to even greater increases in tuition, further restricting access for the very groups he says he wants to help. This is an empirical claim. I invite anyone interested to track it.

26. haohtt - November 04, 2010 at 03:16 pm

Regarding online learning--studies comparing student achievement from "traditional" face-to-face instruction with technology-delivered instruction have been conducted for nearly 90 years. The results are clear: there is no evidence that substandard learning occurs via technology. Those who are anti-DL have had plenty of opportunities to provide empirical data to support the inferiority of distance learning and have failed to deliver. Regarding for-profits: there are certainly some "bad players" out there among the 3,000 institutions, but to declare that all are bad is just silly and is akin to the person who would claim that if a non-profit institution loses its accreditation, then all non-profits are suspect and should undergo more stiff regulation.

27. engberk - November 05, 2010 at 12:34 pm

This is a point of clarification in response to betterschools. I believe that adjunct faculty are unpaid in many institutions both for-profit and not-for-profit. This is the variable I intended to suggest. In no way am I suggesting a correlation between "status" or rank and quality of teaching. Nor do my comments indicate such a correlation. (I also believe that institutions should be transparent with respect to operating budgets and salaries, and thus I do not mean to suggest that for-profits should be held to a different standard in this regard.)

28. engberk - November 05, 2010 at 12:35 pm

Of course I intended to write "underpaid" above, but it is an interesting error.

29. betterschools - November 05, 2010 at 03:42 pm

@engberk - Understood. Thanks . . . and sorry for the misunderstanding.

What spotty data we have on pay suggests that adjuncts are paid less per course in all institutional types and that all institutional types rely on them heavily, and increasingly so. That said, the picture gets complicated in some interesting ways that suggest that further distinctions need to be made.

One distinction is between "professorial" and "practitioner" adjuncts. The former can be thought of as out-of-work professors (electively or otherwise) in terms of their training and experience. The latter are working professionals in the areas they teach (local CPAs who occasionally teach accounting for the fun and stimulation, etc.). Outcomes data (again spotty) suggests that practitioner-adjuncts get better results than full-time profs or professorial adjuncts when they are teaching applied courses (accounting, etc.)

Another potentially useful distinction is how much adjuncts get paid per credit produced. In public universities, adjunct pay on this basis tends to be lower than the for-profits. The reason is that class size in the publics is generally much larger than in the for-profits. One a per credit awarded basis, it is possible for a practitioner adjunct in a for-profit to make more money than a full time tenure track professor.

In many systems, adjuncts serve at the pleasure of the department; i.e., on a per course or per term basis.

One benefit of adjuncts from an administrative perspective is that they are generally compensated in a way that establishes a stable, liner relationship between the work they perform and how much they are paid. Traditional tenure track roles display an inverse productivity/compensation curve. The more they are paid, the less they teach and they tend to engage in independent consulting activities while still being paid by the university.

The devil is always in the details.

30. softshellcrab - November 05, 2010 at 04:47 pm

Everyone be warned....

@ betterschools, aka Robert W. Tucker, is the president of InterEd, Inc., which makes its living off the for-profit schools industry. He is also a former executive with Phoenix University. I get a kick of his comment in #15, warning us that "Geteducated.com" cannot be trusted since they are a lead generation vendor of online programs, and not an independent research shop.

Well, what is he? He has as much bias as anyone. He is entitled to have his bias, but let's be honest that it is there.

And remember his Phoenix University connection. The same outfit that was recently caught recruiting homeless alcoholics, many without even high school education, to borrow government loans to finance taking Phoenix classes. What a statement that makes! The for-profits are just education-prostitutes. See the article:


The students I meet who have come from Phoenix, Devry, etc. confirm time and time again that it is almost impossible to fail if you just show up to class. These things are just money mills. In my own not-so-prestigious state school, we fail about 1/3 of the students in the primary courses. For-profits would never kick away the money like we do. My students who have been forced to retake primary courses that they already took at for-profit schools say that our course was a phenomenal difference and they understood why we made them retake it. Don't be fooled.

31. betterschools - November 05, 2010 at 04:51 pm

On my last point, I should amend "The more they are paid, the fewer courses they teach, the fewer credits they produce, and they tend to engage in independent consulting activities while still being paid by the university." This links the point more directly to the earlier points.

32. betterschools - November 05, 2010 at 05:02 pm

@softshell, Again, please let us know who you are, and where you teach, so others of us can make a more rational determination as to the sources of your pervasive and clearly unscientific bias against online education and your vitriol against for-profits. I have asked you to be honest and forthcoming at least a half dozen times. Each time you disappear only to reemerge in another post engaged in the same specious reasoning that your employment history is somehow irrelevant and mine is so relevant as to produce irremediable bias. Rubbish!

Again, I have no ties to the University of Phoenix except that I worked there 16 years ago. Thirty years ago, I was employed by Oxford. In your mind, does that make be biased for or against the Brits?

Will you run and hide again this time softshell? BTW: If you read my first post, you will see my name. Most of us have kept track or we don't care.

33. sages - November 06, 2010 at 03:42 pm

"19. mdefusco - November 04, 2010 at 07:51 am

I understand why non profit professors are nervous. The for profits have challenged the very basic notion that universities should be designed around professors and in instead designed the apparatus of learning around students (time and place)."

Not so, the for-profits seem to be designed around the profit generating structure. This means recruiting students, and pushing them through the system as fast and as efficient as possible. I have to agree that the for-profits make me nervous as to the quality of the education they provide. There is just so much pressure to generate profit at any cost to the student (including letting them graduate whether they learned or not).

34. betterschools - November 06, 2010 at 07:03 pm


You raise an important issue in need of more objective research. Many for-profits, especially those serving undergraduate markets, operate with minimal admissions standards. In itself, this is arguably a net good. Among the students rejected by the publics (formally and otherwise) are many individuals who end up succeeding in important senses of the term. It is fundamentally in alignment with our culture to give marginal students an opportunity to fail. However, a few researchers who have examined this issue, myself included, wonder if the pressures to graduate are not sometimes excessive in some undergraduate for-profit settings such that individuals who do not meet minimum standards graduate anyway. The question goes to downside risk management or management of the "floor" of quality. This is not a "good school/bad school" issue but it does give the dichotomous thinkers who post here enough ammunition to "prove" their point. They seem unaware that we would find embarrassments among graduates of their institutions as well. The question is not one of upside potential (there is abundant evidence that the best graduates in for-profit programs learn as much and succeed to the same extent as comparable graduates of public institutions. Some for-profits, commonly the doctoral and other advanced professional programs in those for-profits that offer such programs, have admissions standards comparable to publics and routinely bounce people out of the program if they can't do the work. Argosy University, for example, has an APA Accredited PsyD program that produces top graduates who work in some of the best clinical setting in the country. If the publics commit excessive Type II error, the for-profits may also commit too much Type I error. Of course the research question is more complicated than this discussion because of issues such as differences in learning environments, etc. In any event, many of us who have been studying this for a couple of decades believe that the for-profits could eliminate important criticisms were they to take affirmative steps to eliminate the bottom 2-5% of their graduates. The publics have an equally serious problems, but they are not on the radar screen this year.

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