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Aaron Bady's excellent critique of Clay Shirky's thought provoking post "Napster, Udacity, and the Academy" provides a powerful window into our most important debates about how higher ed will evolve over the next few years. 

The comments to Bady's article, and Shirky's response to his critique, provide strong evidence of the power of an open exchange of ideas and views within an informed community. 

Great stuff - I hope you invest the time to check it out and perhaps add your own thoughts.

Rather than add to the debate that Bady, Shirky and our community are having about the impact and future of MOOCs, I feel the need to not let pass without challenge or comment Bady's and Shirky's comments on for-profit education.

Bady writes:

"For-profit education has amassed a terrible track record of failure. If you are getting a degree at a for-profit institution, you probably are paying too much for too little."

Shirky, in his response to Bady's critique, writes:

"Like you, I am appalled at Kaplan and U of Phoenix -- there are certainly inept colleges that deliver poor educations, but the for-profit colleges are cynical systematizers of sub-standard delivery, for too much money, and far too high a dropout rate."

Shirky goes on to say that:

"As with health care, education seems to be better delivered by non-profits, with the for-profit businesses relegated to ancillary provisioning."

To both Bady, Shirky (and you), I'd like to ask:

  • Is it possible to believe that for-profit education is no less inherently problematic than non-profit education, while simultaneously advocating for increased public investment and support for our non-profit institutions?
  • Why is it that introducing profit as a motivator into higher education makes that endeavor suspect, while we don't seem to believe this to be true for journalism, publishing, media, technology or any other information or service industry?
  • If we have issues with how government regulates for-profit education and structures the rules for student loans, why is it that we don't take on the government regulators and regulations rather than attack the for-profit institutions that are operating within the laws and regulations?
  • Isn't is possible that we may believe that our (non-profit) institutions offer a superior social and individual value to those in the for-profit sector, yet it is also possible that we may learn some things about how to improve our institutions from the for-profits? 

In asking these questions to Bady, Shriky and our community I wish to in no way minimize any critiques of the for-profit education sector.  

Questions about public funding, student debt, educational quality, and student return on investment should be vigorously pursued. 

Nor do I believe that the for-profit sector has been nearly as transparent and self-critical as it needs to be if it wishes to gain public support, and operate within the norms and culture of higher education.   

What I object to is the automatic equating of for-profit status with a priori negative assessments about value and quality. 

We don't do this for the NYTimes or Apple, as we tend to think (at least I do) that the profit motive is a pretty reasonable motivator for innovation. 

Why should higher education be so different?


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