Students At Risk

The people who advocate new models of higher education, principally variants of online and competency-based education, often characterize the benefits to students as many, and the drawbacks as few or none. Almost nothing is all upside and no downside.

Most people in need of something new are easily drawn into the marketing hype that presents a winning proposition such as “you can have you cake and eat it too” or “you can’t lose.” I worry that many students who opt for online degree programs or competency-based education may be putting themselves at risk by investing time and money in an education that, in the future, may be seen as producing (or actually produce) intellectually and functionally inferior workers (citizens, if you prefer).

If that happens, what will students do? Will they enroll in a traditional degree program, costing them even more time and money to recover from the mistake that they made? Who pays? Surely the student, their parents, or government loans, and not the new purveyors of online higher education. We have already seen such outcomes among the graduates of for-profit colleges, resulting legal actions, fines, and increased federal oversight.

In business, contracts always severely limit the sellers’ liability and place as much risk as possible for the transaction and subsequent outcomes onto the buyer. Prospective students of for-profit colleges must recognize this.

The sellers of online degree programs and competency-based education face essentially no risk. They are likely to be successful in selling their new and shiny objects, which will lead to growth and the inevitable consolidation into a few major players. But, what happens if employers come to favor graduates who have been traditionally educated over those who have been educated via the online educational marketplace?

There is little question that online and competency-based coursework is great for continuing education (self-development or corporate training), after one has developed the study habits and discipline required successfully discharge a full, 15-18 credit course load for several semesters.

The sellers of online degree programs and competency-based education cite the following as benefits:

  • Customization to students’ individual needs
  • Lower cost
  • Smaller learning modules
  • Education that is both current and relevant to actual needs
  • Instill a desire for lifelong learning

These benefits can be incorporated into traditional higher education via Lean teaching and by higher education institutions that adopt Lean as their overall management practice. Doing so would fulfill the need for necessary improvement in traditional higher education and also help the online education marketplace find its niche so that it too can prosper. After all, we do share an objective to educate people, even though it’s ranking in importance may differ between not-for-profits educational institutions and for-profit colleges.

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