A Historic Union?

The National Labor College joins forces with a huge for-profit company to build the biggest online university ever.
January 15, 2010

A month after completing its first foray into online higher education by acquiring the distance education provider Penn Foster, the Princeton Review has set its next goal: to help create the largest online college ever. And it thinks it can do it in five years.

The company announced yesterday that it is entering into a joint venture with the National Labor College -- an accredited institution that offers blended-learning programs to 200 students, most of whom are adults -- to establish what would be called the College for Working Families. The college would offer courses tailored to the needs of union members and their families, beginning this fall.

The curriculum would be broadened from the National Labor College’s current offerings, which are largely made up of courses in labor studies. “We always saw ourselves as the West Point of the labor movement, focusing on training labor leaders,” said William Scheuerman, president of the National Labor College.

The College for Working Families, on the other hand, would respond to the needs of the larger union population -- a large proportion of which wants practical training for new lines of work. The new institution would start off awarding associate degrees, with aspirations to running bachelor's and master's programs down the line. Tuition would be similar to that at most community colleges.

Now independent, the National Labor College was originally established as a training center for the AFL-CIO, with which it still retains a close relationship. That’s where the growth potential comes from; the AFL-CIO has 11.5 million members. And with back-office support from Penn Foster -- which currently enrolls 223,000 students in 150 countries through its online postsecondary, vocational, and high school programs — the College for Working Families is expected to grow on a historical scale.

“Anytime you take 11.5 million people and their families and say, 'We’re going to go to them and offer a reasonably wide range of educational options …' it’s certainly ambitious,” said Michael Perik, president and CEO of the Priceton Review, citing the high demand for inexpensive re-training programs.

“We see no reason why, over the next four to five years, this won’t become the category leader in postsecondary education,” Perik said.

Scheuerman said he was aware of the potential dangers of growing too large too quickly, and that the partners were currently working out how to manage growth and ensure quality in the face of huge demand.

Michael Goldstein, a lawyer at the Washington firm of Dow Lohnes, which is serving as special counsel to the National Labor College, said the marriage between the labor college and corporate online giant was indicative of the broader trend of for-profit institutions partnering with nonprofit colleges. (Update: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Goldstein as general counsel to the National Labor College.)

In an article scheduled to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Trusteeship, Goldstein writes that partnering with nonprofit colleges is a great way for for-profit entities to sidestep the red tape and get their foot in the door of the lucrative online education industry. Meanwhile, the nonprofits, as long as they retain full control of the college’s academic operations, can benefit greatly from the administrative and marketing strengths of their for-profit partners.

In this instance, linking up with a college that expects to enroll massive numbers of a very particular sort of adult learner could connect the Princeton Review, through Penn Foster, to a niche demographic that it would not have otherwise been able to reach as effectively, said Richard Garrett, managing director of the higher ed consulting firm Eduventures. And the unions could never hope to build such a potentially massive re-training operation on their own, Garrett said.

“To me, that’s quite a good fit there,” he said.

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