Saturday, February 6, 2010

Light a Candle: For-profit alliances, Online Learning

As everyone knows, state funding of higher education is notoriously unreliable. After a nationwide surge in direct spending to universities (the boom), the bust has arrived. Big surprise.

While direct appropriations to state universities have foundered, the state and federal money spent on students has increased. This follows public choice theory: politicians spend money to gain the greatest number of votes. There are far more students (and their parents) who vote than there are institutions who want government money.

This is good for those students who use the money wisely and it is good for "school choice": Unlike K-12, students can choose their state college or university. Universities with declining enrollments moan and groan when students head to their competitors. To wit: my own university consists of two campuses: one with skyrocketing enrollment, the other in perpetual decline.

No doubt the news for those wedded to the status quo is bad. Nevertheless, recent trends in nontraditional education have taken off during this crisis. Even before the fiscal bust, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and many others noted that colleges had gotten flabby--not with money but with their way of delivering education in the 21st century.

Campuses facing fiscal difficulty need to get aggressive with educational innovation. Online learning is up (again). Philanthropist Bill Gates is expressing interest in putting his money into improving online education. For the first time, I am using a free online textbook funded by the federal government and distinguished foundations.

Institutions with enrollment and/or funding shortfalls are turning to for-profit alliances. One of the biggest surprises: the National Labor College has formed a for-profit joint venture that retains faculty unionization (NLC is dedicated to promoting unionism). "Bread-and-butter" union faculty ought to take notice: Change or die.

Here's to a new year hoping that my own institution (Southern Illinois University) starts lighting candles rather than cursing the darkness.

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