I’m often asked how I feel about the disgraceful conduct of on-line universities in the news these days. Who isn’t appalled by the evidence and testimony given at recent Senate investigations that show for-profit on-line universities talking trusting students into programs that are frauds? Who isn’t disgusted by institutions that convince hopeful, often low-income students that an investment in one degree or another will be worth the cost of tuition and materials of tens of thousands – at times hundreds of thousands – of dollars?
I’m often asked how I feel about the amazing potential of on-line universities in the news these days. Who isn’t impressed by the creative capacity of educators who have found ways to connect students nationally or internationally in electronic and social media learning experiences that include conversations and sharing and arguments and inquiry? Who isn’t excited about the possibilities of being more and more inclusive of non-traditional students who may not live near a traditional campus or be able to go to class during a traditional day.
The National Education Association is constantly surveying our members on their professional needs so that we can always make sure we are relevant to them. In the past few years, they have been telling us loud and clear – I want to be a better and better professional. I want continuing professional development tailored to my students needs.
I want to know more about more; I want training in helping my English Language Learners; I want information about being more inclusive with my special education students; I want to learn a foreign language; I want to know how to use smart board technology with my Algebra students…
… and I want to take these classes on-line.
I want a quality program that I can custom-fit into my insane schedule, juggling work and the kids and church and volunteering and going on vacation. I want a quality program where I don’t have to find a babysitter. I want a quality program that allows me study something I want to learn; something that will make me a better professional; and one where I won’t have to sell a kidney and my first born to afford it.
Tall order. But an important one. Teachers and education support professionals don’t want to be sold something from a diploma mill. They don’t want to be exploited by a slick salesman and with a slicker ad campaign. They want something real.
More and more of our public universities are reaching out to adult students with on-line courses and degree programs. My husband wanted his master’s in Library Science, and there wasn’t one traditional program on any campus in the state of Utah. A colleague pointed him toward Emporia State University in Kansas, and his experiences were stellar.
His degree prepared him for his work as a librarian and historian. It gave him opportunities he never would have had if his only option was to move to Kansas for three years. So, no one needs to convince me that on-line universities are an important option for today’s students.
But public on-line programs are still limited, especially for out-of-state students. The slack is being picked up by for-profit institutions. Some of these are enormous, and the impact they are having is global. The question is how to avoid the ones being investigated by the Senate. For my organization, we decided this was a service educators were screaming for.
It’s not a question of whether or not we are for or against on-line university programs. The question is: How to find the Good Guys and how to avoid the Bad Players?
We broke it down into three “must haves”. Any on-line institution worth considering must have
(1) stellar content with all the proper accreditation that any traditional institution should have. What students learn should be taught by credentialed, experienced educators who teach a appropriate class size so that they can give individuals the attention they need. Students should be able to interact with each other. There should be transparency of grades and assessments and a dispute resolution process.
(2) The infrastructure of technology, platform and delivery systems should be state-of-the-art. Students should not be frustrated by accessing lessons and media and library materials on-line. There should be adequate telephone and on-line support accessible with day and night hours. There should be counselors available to make sure students understand what they’ll need to be successful.
(3) The ethical conduct of the institution must be impeccable. Unfortunately, this is where institutions with respectable content and a respectable delivery system too often fail. This is where the buyer must beware.
Ethical conduct includes being honest about what a program costs and what a potential career in a field will likely pay so that a student can determine if the cost of tuition is worth it. Unethical institutions not only allow, but train aggressive recruiters who will promise a prospective student an incredibly easy program that will result in an incredibly high salary and convince them to take out a federal student loan to pay an incredibly exorbitant tuition.
A typical Bad Player might have over 90% of their students using a federal student loan. There’s no down side for the institution in the short term. The student is stuck with repaying the loan. The government is stuck if they default. This happens frequently as students often cannot find the job they were told they were preparing for, or if they do find a job in their field, it doesn’t pay nearly what was (mis)represented.
If they default, the government has already paid the institution. The feds goes after the student to repay the loan. Even bankruptcy will not erase a federal student loan obligation. There is no incentive for the unethical institution to care about the debt of the student – a debt that might follow them for the rest of their working lives.
Ethical conduct includes true counseling to determine if the student has the prerequisites for success in a class. Unethical institutions hire salesmen to convince potential students that they all have what it takes… and what it takes is the ability to fill out a federal student loan application.
Fortunately, the federal government is in the process of tightening up the business practices of institutions that have no real mission to serve students – their mission is to make a profit for their investors and their gold mine is the federal student loan program.
What we need are more regulations (Yes. Regardless of what some politicians would have us think, regulations are not bad things. They are the only things protecting vulnerable students students from institutions that exist with a business plan to profit from a taxpayer-funded loan program.)
We already have required reports from all institutions, public, private, for-profit and non-profit, that have students with federal loans. We get to know a lot from these reports. The percentage of students who begin a program and graduate from that program; the loan default rate; the percentage of students on federal student loans; the diversity of the student body; job placement after graduation… all this is helpful in knowing which institutions to trust.
But many institutions fight this transparency. Personally, I think it would be helpful to know which institutions organize to try and kill the regulations that allow a student to know what kind of school they’re dealing with.
We need more and more transparency, more and more information, more and more ways to tell who these guys are, good or bad. NEA has begun this work.
I think the future is with the Good Guys. We just need more of them.