An Education Outside the Gates

January 7, 2010 at 10:56 am 11 comments

On December 30, Bloomberg BusinessWeek posted an article by Pulitzer Prize-winner Daniel Golden, “For-Profit Colleges Target the Military,” with the subhead “Online universities are raking in millions by signing up soldiers as students. But how valuable is the education they’re delivering?”

Mr. Golden explores several themes:

  • For-profit universities are aggressively recruiting members of the armed forces, claiming 29% of all active-duty students and 40% of the half-billion dollars in tuition assistance for these students
  • Classes are accelerated and certain degree programs are notably shorter than similar ones from brick-and-mortar schools
  • Online programs are not subject to the same level of government review as classroom instruction provided at bases by traditional schools
  • Online degrees are no guarantors of career advancement once graduates leave the military and may actually inhibit placement due to their lower reputation compared to degrees from brick-and-mortar schools

While it focuses on the experiences of students in the military, Mr. Golden’s article ultimately adds to the negative coverage and commentary regarding for-profit universities and online degrees. This is a sore subject for graduates of such programs, myself included. I hold a bachelor’s degree in Business/Marketing from the University of Phoenix Online and I am currently studying online for a master’s degree in Organizational and Professional Communication from the University of Denver.

I wanted to find out more about the journalist who wrote yet another slam against for-profit schools and online learning. Daniel Golden received a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for a series of articles in The Wall Street Journal on the “admissions edge given to children of alumni and donors” at top-tier universities. The articles led to his book, The Price of Admission. Its subtitle: “How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges–and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates.”

Amid the start of Winter Quarter at DU, I read Mr. Golden’s book. Detailed and damning, it takes on the legacy system and related preferential admission practices in the Ivy League and at other esteemed schools such as Stanford, MIT and Duke. Mr. Golden gives no quarter to his own alma mater, Harvard, for bending the rules for privileged applicants when grades and test scores fall short. He is unafraid to name those whose children have benefited from the system, including Vice President Al Gore, Senator Bill Frist and mega-agent Mike Ovitz. He calls Asian-Americans “the new Jews” for being excluded from top schools as spots are saved for others. The book is an allegory of America as our ideals of meritocracy succumb to the sad reality of aristocracy.

Now I’m upset that Mr. Golden has trained his sights on my educational bastion–for-profit/online–just as many Ivy League alums and administrators were undoubtedly enraged when he produced his Wall Street Journal series and The Price of Admission. But in considering the varied college constituencies Mr. Golden has stirred up in his career, a phrase on his book’s dust jacket becomes poignant: “Outside the Gates.”

For-profit schools and their defining offering, online degrees, are the educational salvation for people who are the farthest outside the gates. These are the students already committed to a life-path, be it military service, or families, or careers (usually stymied by lack of a degree). These are the students called “nontraditional,” from a 19-year-old Marine in Afghanistan to a 42-year-old single dad in Southern California (yours truly when I enrolled at University of Phoenix Online in 2004). These are the students who become the graduates who hit new barriers to their career advancement when their degrees are disparaged.

Putting it mildly, it’s ironic that anyone would consider an online degree less valuable or genuine than the traditional variety as we move our lives to the Internet. You can work, play, shop, socialize and seek a soulmate online. Just don’t get an education there. Admittedly, this is a hard argument to win if you never get an interview because HR reflexively hits “delete” on certain résumés.

In an example of this practice, Mr. Golden quotes Mike Shields, retired USMC colonel and current HR director of Schindler Elevator who consistently rejects military candidates for his company’s management development program “because their graduate degrees come from online for-profits.” Mr. Golden reports that the ex-colonel will send such candidates to the front lines in non-management positions.

I know directly that blind rejection of online degree holders denies companies smart, industrious and qualified employees. Setting aside personal bias for myself and my wife (we met as online students), I cite my former and current classmates (including people in the armed forces) and online graduates I have met outside of my classes. “Cajun” is a member of the latter group, a blogger who gives unvarnished accounts of distance learning under a nom de plume. He is bright, passionate, deeply informed on education and business issues, and going for his second master’s degree from an online school, Bellevue University. Cajun rebuts Mr. Golden’s BusinessWeek article on numerous points.

Ultimately, online degrees are a convenient target because they are the distinctive symbol of for-profit universities, the institutions that have led this form of learning. The complaints against for-profit universities center on their very description: businesses with a profit motive, seemingly more beholden to stockholders than students. The problem with such noble umbrage: money is at the heart of higher education, from private schools placating donors to public schools appeasing budget-controlling legislators and tending their own endowments.

Still, the detractors continue, the profit motive debases the curriculum and culture of schools like University of Phoenix. The focus is on vocational majors like Business and IT. Professors do not have tenure and most are adjuncts. A hurry-up mentality replaces the rich immersion of the traditional college experience.

Exactly.

For-profit universities distill a college education to its essentials and deliver it efficiently to people who need its benefits as soon as possible. Military. Minorities. Dropouts. Never-wents. Career changers. People outside the gates.

Prejudice against online degrees and for-profit schools is the new educational elitism and warrants the same scrutiny as unfair college admission practices. I’m optimistic that this prejudice will decrease over time as more people earn degrees from such programs and more brick-and-mortar schools offer online learning, such as my current school, University of Denver. But how much time will it take? How many more job applicants will be arbitrarily shut out after spending years completing degrees at accredited schools?

Going back to the article that triggered this post, I agree with Mr. Golden’s premises:

  • For-profit universities and online degree programs must be academically rigorous
  • Recruiting and financial aid must be transparent
  • Members of our military deserve a quality education subsidized by the country they defend

I disagree with his slant, exemplified by the title of the print version, “G.I. Bill of Goods,” and the line in his lead paragraph, “…for-profit colleges making money off active-duty military with subsidies from American taxpayers.” Mr. Golden does present quotes and anecdotes supporting for-profit/online, but it’s fair to say they are not the takeaways of his piece.

As a journalist on an education beat, Mr. Golden has advocated for those “outside the gates.” Giving for-profit universities and online degrees their due would be a proper addition to that advocacy.

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sabrina  |  January 7, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    The writing of your post demonstrates the effectiveness of an on-line education. It’s an excellent critique of Mr. Golden’s article. With a bit more research, Mr. Golden might have discovered that many not-for-profit colleges and universities are adding on-line components to their curriculum. It’s called progress.

    Reply
    • 2. jasonkarpf  |  January 15, 2010 at 4:23 pm

      The BusinessWeek cover line for the story is “How Colleges Scam GIs.” It seems Mr. Golden and the magazine had made up their minds on how they wanted to present for-profit/online. Not a lot of room or inclination to dig deeper.

      Reply
  • 3. JT Pedersen  |  January 8, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    Hello Jason,

    Glad to see someone provide such a well-written critique as you have.

    One thing that is worth noting, for-profit and non-profit are merely IRS distinctions for taxation purposes. -Every- entity exists to make a profit in some fashion otherwise they wouldn’t exist. It’s just that simple. Besides, isn’t part of the American dream…to be profitable?

    This type of article is looking into the past. More importantly, we need to be looking forward into the future. I wrote a couple articles on, “Believing in Open Education.” Much as we’re seeing business models struggle because of rapid technical evolution (e.g. newspapers, music, print, etc.), the traditional brick ‘n mortar school is also about to face a massive challenge.

    I would much rather have heard Mr. Golden discuss the value of our young population assuming $100Ks of debt obtaining degrees obsolete before they’re half way through their programs.

    Enjoying having my own UoP Online degree,

    JT…

    Reply
    • 4. jasonkarpf  |  January 15, 2010 at 4:26 pm

      You nail it when you mention other industries going through huge shifts because of new technology and the public’s changing demand for “product.” Education is not immune and forward-thinking schools–like our alma mater, University of Phoenix–understand the transformation (and are driving it).

      Reply
  • 5. Pam Bakopoulos  |  January 10, 2010 at 11:19 am

    Hi Jason
    You make strong statements as to the pros of online education for students and the cons they face upon completing their degrees. I am doing a dual masters online. I can tell you I work much harder on my online courses than my husband who is in a more traditional MBA program.

    I have to be more disciplined in time management and clearer in my thoughts so instructors and classmates understand what I’m trying to say in postings/papers.

    I also take care of my family and home while undertaking these degrees without the benefit of an employer paying for my education. I would think this would point out to potential employers my abilities to multitask, my dedication to edcuation and training, and my focus on future prospects regarding work. Unfortunately,people like you and I are dismissed by some as future employees whithout being given a fair chance.

    Reply
    • 6. jasonkarpf  |  January 15, 2010 at 4:28 pm

      For employers who are open-minded (and I hope that is the majority), they can draw many positive conclusions about job applicants just by knowing they earned their degrees online.

      “See” you in class.

      Reply
  • 7. James Strock  |  January 10, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    Another terrific post, Jason!

    There are so many issues you’ve raised that it points toward entire posts, not just comments. To suggest a few issues, in no particular order:

    –the traditional university approach is in the midst of redefinition every bit as much as publishing and other information-related spaces. Peter Drucker foresaw this some time ago. It’s easy to forget that at one time traditional university settings were viewed as efficient ways to transmit scarce information and education. Today…. not so much…. indeed that’s often not expressed as their distinctive rationale….

    –who can doubt that the maturity and motivation of may students of for-profit educational enterprises is much greater than of students at many traditional institutions? As with night schools, for example, the students who have overcome the challenges of combining two or more work lives into one can be immensely effective in the work world.

    –many people have visceral reactions that anything “for profit” is suspect, motivated for wrong reasons, etc. This goes far beyond education. It implies that someone is taking from others in a profit transaction, rather than serving them. This bears some thought and reexamination in my view.

    –The bias of some employers, refusing to give online university grads a full shot seems shortsighted and soon enough self-defeating. As the numbers and performance of online and for-profit grads rises, this will surely begin to adjust…

    –And, will such trends accelerate as the traditional institutions adopt more and more non-traditional approaches in order to survive and remain useful. Will the various kinds of educational institutions converge over time?

    Reply
    • 8. jasonkarpf  |  January 15, 2010 at 4:34 pm

      Jim, as a graduate of Harvard, your opinions on higher education are well-qualified. It is refreshing to see your appreciation of new forms of learning. You bring up an important point…online is in the time-honored tradition of night school, a place where motivated students have the opportunity to educate and improve themselves.

      Reply
  • 9. LLB  |  January 11, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    A thorough assement, Jason.
    One of the essential aspects of learning is the consideration of many other viewpoints and life experiences. Gathering students from the peace-keeping troops overseas, the sunny inland of LA valley, the market-driven, Packers-supportive Northwest and snowy peaks of the fly-over zone of the Rocky Mountain west creates a robust discussion (albiet online) and exploration of the subtlties that are unmatched in most classrooms. I’m honored to be a part of it.

    Reply
    • 10. jasonkarpf  |  January 15, 2010 at 4:39 pm

      One important reason that online education works: experienced and dedicated instructors like you. If anyone doubts the value of an online degree, he/she should audit one of your classes. Thank you for being a teacher and supporter of students from across the country and around the world.

      Reply
  • 11. ROI U «  |  October 23, 2010 at 11:08 am

    […] Read my other post about for-profit schools, An Education Outside the Gates. […]

    Reply

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