The Arizona Desert Lamp

The Importance of For-Profit Higher Ed

Posted in Campus, Culture by Evan Lisull on 2 March 2009

Why Online Degrees Are HotOver at the under-appreciated Changing Higher Education, Dr. Lloyd Armstrong points out an interesting twist to the long, slow decay of the print newspaper:

The most profitable and fastest growing division of the Washington Post Company was its division that has little to do with communication in the traditional sense – Kaplan. Kaplan’s operating income was $206M, up 38% from 2007. Education almost covered the loses of the company’s flagship print divisions!

While Kaplan is almost synonymous with test-prep for most college students, that division of Kaplan actually dropped by a percentage point from FY07 Q4, according to the earnings report. The division that saw the largest increase was “higher education,” which grew by 30 percent. This division “includes Kaplan’s domestic and international post-secondary education businesses, including fixed-facility colleges as well as online post-secondary and career programs.” The most famous of these is Kaplan University, which to be quite honest I’d never heard of before.

Meanwhile, DeVry Inc. reported earnings of 59 cents a share as late as the end of January, and the Apollo Group (the parent company of U. Phoenix) was singled out, along with Wal-Mart and Apple, as one of the three thriving companies in the current economy.You almost have to wonder if the market for higher education isn’t recession-proof. When markets are bubbling in Fed-fueled effervescence, seemingly everyone can afford college, and will. Yet even when markets go down, having another degree can make the difference between getting the better job or remaining at a dead-end post.

In discussions over higher education, there’s a certain scorn reserved for online education, usually used as an epithet. “Man, that’s stupid. Where’d he go to school, Phoenix Online?” (“Why, yes, Representative, I did.”) However, I wonder if for-profit, online schools might fill an important niche of providing education for those who don’t necessarily need the full university treatment. Matt gets at the issue in this post, putting in the good word for trade schools:

I’m also a fan in many respects of the trade school system typified by Germany but common throughout Europe, where students are funneled/choose a path pretty early on, around the time of middle school, of going to University or attending some more specialized school.

. . .

This has its drawbacks: despite making the system more flexible in recent times, the trade school system may still be more restrictive in what people can end up doing with their lives, and we shouldn’t go on mucking up the wildly successful American system of Universities, as we have a huge number in the world’s top 100.

Of course, if we were really going to get serious about this, we’d bring back the system of apprenticeship. I don’t think that this drawback of the trade school system can be easily ignored, and it becomes more of a problem in a culture like America’s, where much of the national character is contingent on the nectar of endless possibility (imperium sine fine?). Inherently, setting yourself on a trade path accepts the limiting of other possibilities, which is quite hard for young Americans to do. Even those coming from poorer neighborhoods must stave off the allure of the potentially limitless rise of the dope game. This striving impulse isn’t a bad thing, but it is a very real thing.

The advantage that the Kaplans and DeVrys of the world offer is a chance to jump into the trade school path after that life decision has been made, after other doors have been closed. In many senses, these schools are already de facto trade schools — very few, if any, users of these systems are trying to take in the “college experience.” Instead, they are usually already employed, and are seeking a degree to allow them to move up the metaphorical ladder of their workplace. According to the U. Phoenix’s Fact Book, a full 42.8 percent of those enrolled are seeking business degrees of some kind, and 14.3 percent are enrolled in the College of Health and Human Services. The average age of those enrolled is 33, a far cry from the average public university average.

This flexibility in the system also prevents a student of a trade school from being trapped in his trade. Suppose, for instance, in this economy, that a student graduated from a trade school focused on carpentry. In spite of this specialized education, that student isn’t exactly in a great place. Even if you have a job, business is way down. The long-term trend for carpentry is not exactly pretty either; now might be a good time to jump the industry ship. These for-proft programs allow for a quick turnaround.

The main problem with these schools is the social stigma associated with them – which, unsurprisingly, is the hardest problem to solve.

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One Response

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  1. Laura Donovan said, on 2 March 2009 at 2:31 pm

    Do you think the social stigma (against online degrees) limits career opportunities? Sadly, the social stigma will probably remain for both online and trade school students, even though some people aren’t interested in taking the traditional college path.


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