‘Follow the money’ in online education, faculty warn

Could the explosion of interest and money in online education be leading to higher education’s version of the subprime mortgage crisis?

Some in the for-profit colleges sector have gravitated toward online education.

The authors behind a new paper, titled “The ‘Promises’ of Online Higher Education: Profits,” worry such a crisis could be around the corner — unless educators and the public look beyond the altruistic rhetoric of online learning providers.

Like online education’s stated goal of expanding the middle-class dream of going to college, the loan practices that led to the mid-2000s mortgage crisis “were conducted in the name of expanding the middle-dream of home ownership,” the researchers said.

“The results of our failure to look behind the rhetoric were disastrous, both for the nation as a whole and for the lives of ordinary people,” the authors wrote. “We need to do better for American higher education.”

In the first of three papers exploring the issue, a coalition of faculty members called the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education noted that only when the public “follows the money” that is behind online education can the real value – and dangers – of these innovations become clear.

“Increasingly online higher education is big business with huge profits being made by many private companies,” the paper’s authors wrote. “We are told repeatedly that students will benefit from the rush toward more online learning, but we must ask who’s benefiting more: Students? Or investors and companies?”

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In just the past year, several high-profile companies have taken a vested interest in online education.

AT&T donated $2 million to an online master’s degree program at Georgia Tech. Pearson signed a seven-year deal with Rutgers University, and forged partnerships with community colleges.

The for-profit University of Phoenix announced a plan to partner with more than 100 community colleges before the year’s end.

The paper shines a particularly bright spotlight on online institutions like the University of Phoenix, as well as MOOC platforms like Coursera and Udacity.

These entities often partner with non-profit universities, but their end goal is just the opposite, the report said. Indeed, Coursera recently announced it had made$1 million in profits from its signature track courses.

In June, Michael K. Clifford, a longtime powerhouse in the for-profit college industry, launched a website offering 27 MOOC-like courses. While the program, called DreamDegree, is not-for-profit, it is unaccredited and charges $299 per course.

“To state a fact we too often forget, online higher education is neither philanthropy nor social activism,” the authors wrote. “It is big business, not significantly different from that in any other industry.”

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