I came across this interview of Purdue University's President Mitch Daniels on NPR.org - for some reason I missed the announcement about the merger between nonprofit Purdue and for-profit Kaplan University earlier this year. The goal, as Daniels explains it, is to offer a different, non-traditional segment of the student population broader and cheaper access to higher education. There is no question that residential colleges are better fits for 18-to-22-year-olds than, say, 35-year-olds with a family and a mortgage, and acquiring Kaplan is a way to reach those non-traditional students without starting from scratch. The interview did not contain much new information about current trends - all of us in higher ed know that the demographics are changing, more college-bound high school graduates are not college-ready, the increasing cost of a diploma is becoming worrisome. (An interesting tidbit in the first NPR article was the "revenue theory of cost" of economist William Bowen, which basically says that colleges spend more because they can.)
Daniels did show he was aware of key trends such as the rise of alternative certifications and the need to educate students at different (nontraditional) ages. As a side note, the acquisition of Kaplan U addresses neither the lack of college-readiness for college-bound high school grads, nor the increasing cost of a diploma. Maybe there are more nontraditional students now because they were not college-ready 10 years ago, and perhaps it would be more helpful to deal with the root of the problem (the transition from high school to college, or even the high school curriculum) now rather than trying to take those people money when they have a bit of an income and realize their options are going to be limited if they don't get a college degree.
In the interview Daniels talks a little bit about the deal with Kaplan, which is an online university educating working adults. This other NPR article gives a fuller picture of it. More and more universities are entering the online market to help attract "non-completers" (people who started college but did not get a degree) and non-traditional students. Personally I like the use of basic technology, like videotaping the lectures, to help students understand the material by watching lectures in their dorm after class, but I'm ambivalent about online education. It's great when you're older (and so hopefully have the discipline to follow through even if the professor isn't in the same room as you), when you don't have a high-quality local option, and when the course is well-suited for an online format, but in order for it to replace on-campus education, it needs to reach a far more advanced state than the collection of short, simple videos that make a course on, say, Coursera. I also think that any good course requires the assessment of students' work by a real person, rather than multiple-choices quizzes that can be graded by a computer. But that'll be the topic of another post.
I wonder about the traditional students who applied to Purdue and were rejected, and will see nontraditional students get the Purdue name on their degree. Can they hope to get into Purdue through Kaplan? What will make the Kaplan University education a Purdue education?
The NPR article explains: "In an atmosphere of ever-skinnier state budgets, these programs enable universities to reach a global market, cater to working adults, and potentially increase revenue without expensive capital investment." But one has to be cautious not to admit anyone just because they can pay the tuition. The article makes clear Kaplan will operate as a new, distinct unit of Purdue. Interestingly, it "will be exempt from Indiana open-door laws, access to public records and public accounting rules." A 2009 Senate investigation "accused Kaplan of using predatory marketing tactics, and putting more money toward recruitment and profits than education" While Kaplan is said to have reformed itself by the time a 2012 followup came around, it might get a little complicated to merge the cultures of both institutions.
Running a for-profit university and a nonprofit university are very different endeavors and Purdue has no existing skill set in that area. I don't get where the synergy is going to come from. If Purdue feels this is part of its mission as a land-grand institution, why isn't it merging with local community colleges? Oh, wait, they'd actually have to see the students. On the other hand, if the merger makes Kaplan U become a real nonprofit, then it could have a lot of positive developments for the nontraditional students who have spent so much of their money trying to get a degree, including veterans. Maybe it is in the public interest that Purdue merge with Kaplan, in the interest of Kaplan's students. But it's important that the faculty and students going through Kaplan U, now renamed "New U", aren't viewed as second-tier. I don't think faculty at for-profit institutions have tenure, for instance, I also doubt they do research, in contrast to Purdue's. So it'd be like an entire school at a research university being taught by adjuncts. They may well be highly competent adjuncts, but they are in a completely different category of faculty.
Hopefully Purdue will also use Kaplan's online infrastructure to offer great online courses to its on-campus students, allowing them to take a mix of classes in person and online, but this also opens the risk of on-campus teaching positions being eliminated down the road and replaced by online education.
Anyway, it'll be fascinating to watch what happens with that merger.