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During the editors’ podcast last week, we wandered off onto the topic of online education, with a special emphasis on the idea that it has the potential to be an antidote to much of what’s wrong with modern American college campuses. That wasn’t a topic any of us had planned to discuss — it grew naturally out of our ad spot for The Great Courses — so the resulting conversation may have been a bit desultory.
Luckily, this being Ricochet —where you can find an expert on anything if you just look hard enough — I subsequently received this bit of correspondence from an academic working in a leadership position in a public regional comprehensive university. His point (and it’s a good one): our conversation entirely elided the complications posed by accreditation. That individual has generously allowed me to reproduce it here:
I probably spend about 4-6 hours each week thinking about online education or at least have lately. I have both created coursework online and administered programs that offer online education and online degrees. Our leadership urges us to create more and more of it.
I find some of what was said on the podcast true. The Obama Administration has been aggressive in regulating for-profits that are leaders in online education, killing off Corinthian Colleges in the process. (I doubt they think that a mistake.) And they can dictate the terms of education by controlling what kind of higher education qualifies for federal loan programs. The takeover of the student loan market by the feds after ACA has only been the latest acceleration.
One item that has long stood as an impediment for the for-profit institutions has been accreditation. There are three types: first are the regional accreditation programs that accredit entire colleges and universities, all public and private non-profits. They will not do for-profit or technical/vocational schools — these have their own second set of national accreditors. But often the former group of schools will not take credits from the latter. Both are recognized and controlled by the Higher Education Act and thus the federal Department of Education. The fight over online education is somewhat similar to the longstanding battle to get credits from the nationally accredited schools to be accepted in transfer at the regional accredited schools. Public universities spend millions lobbying the federal government on student loan programs.
So one impediment is an attempt to stifle competition. Meanwhile, we try to create our own online courses using existing faculty, many of whom do not have the skill or desire for online work. Pinched public university budgets make it hard to offer the kinds of student support services the big online players offer. In short, while I can point to some faculty who do online really well, others go into it for either personal benefit or convenience. (The last thing you want to do as an administrator is make someone teach online.)
It is not, contrary to the belief of many (including some of my bosses), necessarily cheaper or necessarily better. It’s simply a different way to serve a group of students you might not have been able to otherwise. And for regional comprehensives who think they are ready to enter a national market, they usually aren’t unless they’ve got the right degree, at the right price, and an ability to find those students. Most universities don’t have that, but will be damned if they’re going to let the competition beat them to it. Not when they can get the government to prevent it.
The public should take note of two pieces of legislation. One is a deregulatory bill that it turns out both the for-profits and non-profits like. It would get the feds to roll back some of the recent advances the Department of Education has made in squeezing the for-profits because the rules now affect the traditional universities too. The other is the renewal of the Higher Education Act itself, which has needed an overhaul since the end of 2013. Those would be the best places to address the need for individuals to be able to get online instruction wherever and whenever, and to assure its portability to different universities.