What Non-Profit Universities Can Learn from the For-Profits

6 lessons and 6 implications.

February 12, 2014

For-profit universities provoke fierce criticism.

Among the charges: That these institutions deploy unscrupulous recruiting practices, leave students with crippling levels of debt, award worthless degrees, and inflate job placement rates. Students at the for-profits are more likely to drop out, default on their loans, and be left unemployed than those who attend non-profit colleges and universities.

Nevertheless, there are six essential lessons that non-profits would do well to learn from the for-profits.

Lesson 1: That there are large markets of students who are poorly served or unserved by the traditional higher education establishment. These include college drop-outs, older students, and working adults. These students offer a large potential audience for existing institutions.

Lesson 2: That students’ educational trajectories need to be “process analyzed” to determine why students flounder and drop out. It is essential to use fine-grained analytics to identify the pinch points and barriers to graduation and address these head on.

Lesson 3: That too many students fail to graduate due to inadequate advising, mentoring, coaching, tutoring, and feedback. Too many at-risk students fall through the cracks and fail to receive the timely support that they need to succeed often because faculty and advisers do not recognize potential problems until too late.

Lesson 4: That the cafeteria-style curriculum, with unlimited options, does not serve many non-traditional students well. Time is generally the enemy of graduation, and wasted credit hours contribute significantly to low graduation rates.

Lesson 5: That efficiency and scale are not inevitably at odds with instructional quality. Scaled courses allow institutions to invest in next-generation personalized adaptive pedagogies that embed remediation and enrichment as well as active and collaborative learning into these classes.

Lesson 6:  That many students seek degrees with a clear value proposition. Those students who drop out often do so because college’s outcome isn’t obvious and the courses fit poorly into their busy lives. 

What, then, are the implications of these lessons?

Implication 1: The non-profit sector needs to recognize that the student body consists of many sub-populations with distinct needs and aspirations. A one-size-fits-all models needs to give way to greater personalization and to a multiplicity of delivery modes and degree pathways.

Implication 2: It is not enough to recognize that there are untapped markets of unserved and poorly served students. It is essential to understand why these students decide not to pursue post-secondary education and what precisely they seek. Efforts to reach out to new audiences fail when based on intuition rather than upon serious market research.

Implication 3: Redesigning a small number of “roadblock” courses is insufficient. Higher education involves trajectories too often marked by detours and roundabouts. Clearer degree pathways, with better aligned readings and assignments and learning outcomes, can offer some students a more efficient and effective route to a degree.

Implication 4: For the growing number of non-traditional commuter, working, and caregiving students, anytime, anywhere, wrap-around student advising and support are essential to help them successfully complete their degree.

Implication 5: Unconventional coaching models and “intrusive” advising can greatly contribute to student success. Coaches, who can range from peer mentors and teaching assistants to content specialists, aren’t a substitute for faculty, but are increasingly necessary to monitor student engagement and to offer just-in-time intervention to keep students on track.

Implication 6: Industry-aligned, career-oriented degree programs need not conflict with a liberal arts education. An interdisciplinary general education core, emphasizing proficiency in writing, close reading, critical thinking, and quantitative literacy, needs to be an integral part of degree verticals optimized to expedite time to degree.

Steven Mintz, the Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, is also a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.


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