Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Times They are 'a Changing

Today's New York Times reports on a new bill that will allow colleges and universities to flexibility with the 50 percent rule governing receipt of federal aid and online course offerings. Currently colleges and universities that receive federal student aid are bounded by law to provide at least half their offerings on a physical campus. This new law will change that.

The Times attacks the bill from the angle of growing influence among for profit colleges--ones that offer most, if not all their offerings online. What the article failed to cover was the enormous impact this will have on traditional colleges and universities. And I venture to suggest this could be a positive thing.

Here's one of the problems I've had the opportunity to study and witness first hand. Campuses and their physical plants are extremely expensive. Many large universities resemble small cities not quaint campuses harkening back to a simpler era. Many state systems of higher education are at or near capacity to enroll students due to wide-spread knowledge and beliefs and in human capital theory, explicit measures of habitus, and social and cultural capital (i.e. people know they get something back when the attend college). This means in order to expand they have to increase the size of their campuses. This is not as simple as hiring a few more adjuncts (another lesson in shame for another time). These universities have to build new dorms, expand dining facilities, grow student services, fin-aid, IT, and maintenance staff. It goes on and on. I study and work in a school of education. We're way beyond capacity to contain all of our varied programs, so we've distributed our faculty and staff all over town. So logically we're attempting to build a new building. The problem is that the costs of this new building are incredible. And they don't hold still. The costs of steel and labor are soaring, save nothing for the costs of real estate in 2006. The long and short of all of this is that physical campuses are exorbitantly expensive to maintain and expand. Essentially the only way to improve the bottom line of college or university at capacity is to reach more students without bringing them on campus.

Do I think a classroom experience is superior to an internet experience? Having done both I would say yes. But I know people who want to finish a degree, and I know people who want to get an advance degree in education who would be served well by distance learning. If this bill does what the Times reports it will do, then I think the better story here is not how for-profits will benefit, but how there is potential for traditional colleges and universities to maintain their campuses and respond to the need for growth, particularly from students who might not otherwise be able to afford the costs of attending a college, arguably an increasing luxury. The Times has a great angle with this story. For-profits weild significant influence in Washington. However, it's not the angle I would have taken.


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