You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

An African American female student takes notes in front of a laptop, engaging in online learning.

Drazen_/E+/Getty Images

When researching to learn more about the first two Black women to serve on my local school board, I noticed a couple of striking omissions in their bios—neither listed the names of the institutions where they earned their graduate degrees.

What’s your first assumption? Mine was that they attended for-profit online universities, and it did not take much internet sleuthing to discover I was right.

I taught at a for-profit online university from 2002 to 2013, and I know how hard these women worked in rigorous programs that follow the same pedagogical models now being valued and adopted across higher education—e.g., interleaving practice of new skills with new learning and integrating prior knowledge and experiences of adult learners. I know they are the same because I have served as an online learning consultant and director for the last 15 years, helping create programs and courses for Ivy League, private and public universities, community colleges, and statewide college consortia.

Yet the poor reputation of for-profit online universities is pervasive. The omissions from my local school board members’ bios serve as yet another reminder of the undervaluing of credentials earned by nontraditional students who have chosen the fully online degree route when it was the most flexible and accessible option, maybe the only option, open to them at the time.

In my work, I have learned that what lies beneath the poor perception of online universities is rarely the rigor of teaching and learning practices.

For example, the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits the for-profit institutions Capella University and the University of Phoenix, is the same regional board that accredits the University of Michigan, Purdue University and 1,000 other universities in a 19-state region. The standards for quality for mission, integrity, teaching and learning, and institutional effectiveness are the same for all institutions, and the peer reviewers who apply the standards are full-time faculty and administrators from HLC member institutions in good standing.

So if their poor reputation is not based on the quality of teaching and learning, what is it based on? In general, there is a negative perception of educational entities with a for-profit tax classification, and the most popular online universities initially had this classification. As Jonathan Knee describes in Class Clowns: How the Smartest Investors Lost Billions in Education (Columbia, 2016), “for-profit universities have been viewed with … derision” even though fewer are skeptical of the “vast web of private enterprises engaged in educational endeavors” in the public and private nonprofit education sector, such as textbook publishers, software companies and providers of assessment products and student life-cycle services (admissions, retention, placement, etc.). This hypocrisy is starting to come to light as watchdogs point out the entrenched involvement of vendors such as online program management companies on traditional campuses.

Some online universities have earned poor reputations for their business practices by targeting low-income students with predatory recruitment tactics that lure them into paying large tuition bills and owing mounds of student debt in return for a lower-than-average chance of completing their degrees. Unscrupulous admission practices are inexcusable on the part of these institutions, but they do not necessarily bear on the quality of the teaching and learning experience for all students.

Who is standing up for the tens of thousands of students—disproportionately women and people of color—who have persevered and graduated from these programs? They earned fully accredited degrees, against all odds, often while working and raising families, and they have just as much right to the labor market value of their credentials as students who faced fewer barriers and attended more traditional institutions.

According to a policy report by higher education researchers at Third Way, for-profit university graduates have experienced a rapid decline in labor market outcomes since the Great Recession. In 2016, an American Economic Review study that measured recruiter callback rates of imaginary applicants with differing credentials found that an individual who earned “a business bachelor’s degree from a for-profit online institution is 22 percent less likely to receive a callback than one from a nonselective public institution.” The study also found that graduates of for-profit online colleges were less likely to receive callbacks for health-related jobs, “unless the job requires an external quality indicator such as an occupational license.”

So not only are these persevering graduates of for-profit institutions burdened with higher levels of student debt, they are not achieving the same labor market outcomes as their counterparts from more traditional colleges and universities. Yet, their institutions were all held to the same academic accreditation standards.

With this in mind, the next time your admissions or hiring committee excludes or scoffs at applicants with online degrees, think twice. What is your rationale? And who will be disproportionately impacted?

L. Roxanne Russell is assistant dean of digital learning and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Next Story

More from Views