Monday was Graduation Day at the University of Oregon. As my boyfriend and I wandered nearby campus and saw all the twenty-somethings in caps and gowns and party gear, he turned to me and asked, “Where are all the older students?” “Not at the UofO,” I replied.
Indeed, although enrollment in college has increased  for those over age 25, enrollment among that demographic is actually on the decline at many public institutions. Instead, many of these adults are opting to attend for-profits, and adult learners make up the majority of for-profits’ student population: 65%  of those enrolled at for-profits are 25 or older, while just 31% of students at four-year public colleges are. There are a lot of reasons for this: helped by the fact that many for-profits offer online and asynchronous classes, something well-suited to adult learners’ work schedules.
Despite meeting these students’ demands and needs, for-profits have been blasted for exploitative practices – enrolling those who are unlikely to graduate, failing to provide the education or skills necessary for students to find work. Of course, with student loan debt reaching an all-time high and with widespread unemployment, we’re now seeing some of those charges levied at not-for-profit schools as well. And yet students continue to enroll, because society values a college degree, because students (and parents and employers) feel as though “they must.”
“The mythology of higher education has to change,” UniversityNow  founder Gene Wade told me when we talked earlier this week. In other words, what is the purpose of higher education: Is college about a residential experience for those age 18–22? Is it about career readiness and professional training? Is it about a liberal arts education? Is it about advanced learning? Is it a series of steps (credits) one takes in order to get a diploma?
Wade believes his startup UniversityNow provides both a challenge to some of those myths and an alternative for students who might not otherwise be able to afford college. UniversityNow runs New Charter University, which opened  earlier this year, and the for-profit announced today that it’s raised $17.3 million in Series B funding, bringing the total raised to $21.5 million. It has also received a $300,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to research its model.
That model involves a blend of online, freemium, and competency-based education. Students pay $199 per month to take as many courses as they want. These courses are self-paced, and credits are awarded when students pass the courses’ assessments not based on “seat-time.” New Charter University uses what Wade describes as a “disaggregated coaching model” – students receive an advisor; each course has its own instructor; and assessments are conducted by anonymous evalutators. The school if officially accredited but is not a Title IV  school, meaning that it does not participate in the Federal Financial Aid program (in other words, no Pell Grants, no Perkins Loans, no Federal Work Study).
The myth that UniversityNow challenges here is, in part, that students need to go into debt to achieve their degrees.
But what about other aspects of the mythology of higher education, particularly the myth that a diploma from a new and relatively unknown university is, even at $199 a month, a good investment?
“I’ll see Mr. Wade’s mythology of college comment with a mythology of my own: it’s the myth of meritocracy,” says Tressie (McMillan) Cottom, a Ph.D. student in sociology at Emory University and organizer of an upcoming conference on for-profit universities . “You’ve heard this one before, I’m sure. We all have. It’s right up there with American exceptionalism. It says that he or she with the right skills will be rewarded in a labor market that values ability above all else. That is to say companies only hire the best man or woman for the job.”
“The only problem with that is that we have reams of data to the contrary,” she continues. “I suspect that most of us know this intuitively which would explain why so many have a visceral distrust of for-profit college models. If you’ve ever trained your new boss or watched as your manager hired yet another inexperienced fraternity buddy over the better hire that lacked the right relationships, you understand that something more than skill and experience matter. We call this social capital. And one of the many things higher education has provided students is access to the kind of capital that makes their college degree valuable. UniversityNow’s model targets many of those who need most that kind of social capital.”
Cottom argues that the types of students that are more likely to attend for-profits -- working adults, low-income adults, minorities -- are the ones that need this social capital the most. And she questions whether being able to check the box that students are now college graduates thanks to a New Charter University degree will really provide them with the mobility they’re looking for.
That mobility is a key piece of the myth of higher education, and I think all providers – for-profit and not-for-profit – still sell us on that. Go to college, so the story goes, and you’ll go places.
I could sense the hopefulness for mobility in the young adults who flooded the streets of Eugene, Oregon, celebrating their newly minted status as college grads (happily ignoring their six-month reprieve before student loan payments come due). I'm not sure that college affordability is the only problem we're facing. I'm not sure that new business models will address the dangers in our current myths.
There have been plenty of calls lately for more innovation in higher education, and the for-profits certainly tout their ability to move more quickly than the public institutions. But what will be the results of these experiments? And what myths do we want challenged? Who benefits when we do so?