In all of the conversation about the “creative destruction” in higher education that is universally assumed to be imminent due to the rapid growth of online and hybrid or blended delivery systems, I was suddenly struck by an article in the March 3 issue of Forbes magazine by Caroline Howard, “No College Left Behind: Randy Best’s Money-Making Mission to Save Higher Education” ( available at www.forbes.com/sites/carolinehoward/2014/02/12/no-college-left-behind-randy-bests-money-making-mission-to-save-higher-education/).
Best is a well-known Texas entrepreneur and no stranger to education products and programs. In his current venture, his company, Academic Partners, is doing what entrepreneurs do—identifying and exploiting an underserved niche, which in this case is admissions marketing for the burgeoning middle mass of the college market: those who need a degree as a gateway to a better job, a career change, and/or better compensation. To do this, he employs networks of thousands of institutions that want employees with better credentials and a huge call center working the phones and e-mails for prospects.
The target market is not the candidate for the highly selective institution, the highly recruited students, or the liberal arts majors; the degrees being marketed here are all about vocational enhancement. And, given the inevitability of the coming revolution in higher education, as the Forbes article describes it, “the easy money in higher education is in helping mediocre public schools put their professional programs online”.
This business plan has been the subject of some criticism from higher education leaders, some of whose institutions are former clients of Academic Partners who felt that they were being converted to “diploma mills”. To this criticism, Best responds, “The whole idea of exclusiveness, as if it’s some kind of virtue to turn down large numbers of students, seems like a moral dilemma for a public institution, doesn’t it?…………….Today, thanks to the internet, you have unlimited seats…………inclusiveness is the future.”
Well, the jury is still out on all of this, and I don’t want to come off as an elitist, but this commoditization of higher education in the interest of pure “vocationalism” gives me pause. For all the crying need for reform of delivery, a big part of the solution to which online delivery is the centerpiece, we desperately need to maintain fidelity to a core curriculum as a foundation for responsible citizenship and accountability for rigorous standards in all disciplines. And I still don’t understand how to do justice to teaching Plato, Aristotle, et al entirely online.