Some Nevada college officials oppose the creation of a new virtual school.

Members of a Nevada higher-education task force are pushing for a virtual college that would farm out community college courses to for-profit institutions, drawing criticism from educators who say the proposal constitutes privatization of public education and a lowering of academic standards.

In a report released in August by a task force created by the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE), officials introduced a range of reforms for Nevada’s four community colleges, with one suggestion grabbing national attention: establishing a new institution, the Nevada Virtual College (NVC), and hiring a for-profit school to “develop and deliver curriculum” to students.

The statewide proposal comes after several years of negative headlines and government reports showing how for-profit college students leave school with far more loan debt than their counterparts at traditional colleges, along with questionable recruiting tactics by some of the best-known for-profit schools, all with vast online programs.

The task force’s report, launched by NSHE Chancellor Daniel Klaich, advocates for the new virtual college in part because Nevada’s community colleges “have been slow to embrace technology coupled with a focus on competency based outcomes, as have nonprofits such as Western Governors University and for-profits such as Phoenix, Kaplan, and DeVry Universities.”

The for-profit school would be paid according to course completion rates, according to the task force report, with bonuses included “for timely degree completion.”

Making the dramatic shift from state-funded and -operated community colleges to outsourcing online classes to a for-profit college is a blatant attempt to privatize higher education in Nevada, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO).

For-profit institutions “have managed to … carve out a policy role for themselves [that might] not be appropriate,” he said, pointing out that Peter Smith, an official at for-profit Kaplan University, served as a contributor to the task force’s report. “It shouldn’t surprise anyone that there are various vested interests suggesting rather unhelpful things … and trying to privatize something that has historically been subsidized by the state.”

Nassirian said years of well-documented research has shown many for-profits offer courses inferior to traditional schools while charging many times the tuition.

“It’s very likely to represent a complete diminution of quality and a huge increase in price,” he said. “How you can justify that to students, I don’t know.”

Nevada higher-education officials were skeptical of the virtual college proposal.

Michael Richards, president of the College of Southern Nevada (CSN), said in a blog post that he is “opposed to the creation of a Nevada Virtual College as a separate, degree-granting institution, and I would submit the CSN is already Nevada’s virtual college, given the scope of offerings, the technology support system in place, faculty oversight, and student services tools available.”

CSN has more than 300 online courses – and more than 900 class sections – along with 30 degree and certificate programs offered through web-based courses, Richards said, adding that the online classes meet the “same standards of rigor and quality” as traditional classroom courses.

“Accreditation for CSN’s online program is already through CSN,” Richards wrote. “A new institution and process is not needed.”

The U.S. Department of Education created new rules this year that would strip federal student aid from for-profit colleges that don’t meet certain criteria. The regulations are meant to ensure that students aren’t graduating from for-profit colleges unqualified for the professional world and burdened with excessive student loan debt.

Nevada’s community colleges should embrace the “public-private partnership” to cater to a growing number of adult learners seeking associate and bachelor’s degrees, according to the NSHE report.

“The state needs to find new means to do so, including encouraging the private higher education sector to expand its capacity within the state,” the report said.

Government reports on abuses in the for-profit industry have exposed many unflattering statistics about for-profit colleges.

An investigation by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions said that Bridgepoint, a for-profit college operator, enrolled 8,000 students in associate degree programs in 2008.

Two years later, more than eight in 10 students had withdrawn from their various Bridgepoint programs, and 1 percent had earned a degree, according to the government data.

Nevada college officials likely are wary of the task force proposal, Nassirian said, in part because the failures of for-profit colleges have been highlighted in recent years.

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