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Language, Tax Status, and Education
December 5, 2012 - 9:00pm

The language we use matters when discussing the various players in the education ecosystem. Labels are never neutral, but rather carry with them a history of judgments, debates, and conclusions.   

When we talk about Apple, or Google, or Microsoft - we never say that they are "for-profit" technology providers. We talk about them as technology companies.   

We might like that Moodle or Sakai is an "open source" LMS, and decide to adopt these platforms for that reason. But we would not decide against going with a Blackboard, Canvas, or D2L simply because they are offered by "for-profit" companies. The salient matter is not non-profit or for-profit, but open vs proprietary code.   

So why is it that we always talk about the University of Phoenix, Kaplan University or Capella University, as if they are primarily defined by their tax status? If there is nothing that is intrinsically counter to our values about working with Google or Apple or Microsoft (or any other technology vendor or publishing company), then why should some universities be always labeled by their incorporation status?

This is not an argument to be any less critical of any institution or company, particularly those institutions or companies that are funded in-part or in-full by public dollars. Every institution of higher education that I have ever worked at has received substantial direct and indirect funding and resources from every level of government, and this arrangement requires us to be transparent in our operations and ever-mindful of the public and social responsibilities that come with public support.  I am eager to understand which institutions offer the best return on investment for individuals and society. This is a discussion we need to have across our entire education sector.  

The lazy assumptions that the tax status is the overwhelming and ultimately only salient attribute of a given educational institution has held us back from building a sense of shared norms and open exchange across our post-secondary education sector. 

How often are the innovations and efforts of a university such as Phoenix, Kaplan or Capella dismissed because these initiatives are seen as tainted by the "profit motive?" When have we resolved to treat our colleagues at these institutions as peers and fellow educators, rather than as belonging to a separate category somehow existing outside of our public spirited educational mission?

My sense is that an institutions for-profit or non-profit tax status is not a particularly useful or powerful predictor of the quality of educational programs on offer. Other factors, such as a student-centered culture, a respect for faculty autonomy, the support of faculty scholarship, the level of instructional design input and support, the role of librarians and other information specialists on the teaching team, the appropriate and robust use of technologies to support learning goals, and a million other factors are more important than for-profit/non-profit status as predictors of educational quality and value.  

These are the dimensions that we should be discussing and evaluating our institutions of higher education.


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