UB Daily for December 23, 2009 pointed me in the direction of a very interesting article in the Times-Herald, which covers the Sonoma and Napa regions in northern California. The article is entitled “Private Universities Covering the Gaps in Higher Education.” The gaps of the title are those resulting from the crippling state budgetary cuts to public higher education in California, and the “private universities” that are rushing in to alleviate the problems are all in the for-profit sector. Although several for-profits are mentioned, The University of Phoenix is the focus of this article.
According to the Times-Herald, a northern California official of The University of Phoenix reports that they are seeing increased enrollments due to two cut-related effects: inability of students to get needed courses in community colleges, and inability of students to transfer between different state institutions. The Times-Herald reports that In order to meet these needs:
University of Phoenix officials are working on a strategic plan with nearby Solano Community College to assure its students have good access to the school, said Jo Hoffmeier, University of Phoenix vice president of community relations and product safety....The local University of Phoenix campus is also working to improve its alliances with California State University campuses nand University of California at Berkeley to assure access to as many students as possible, Hoffmeier said.
Thus, the University of Phoenix is working proactively with the public sector to maximize opportunities for students under changing conditions in higher education. I believe that this type of public-private cooperation is going to be increasingly important in meeting the learning needs of future students. Strong support for this belief can be found in a recent USC doctoral dissertation by Lauren Cooper.
Cooper’s USC dissertation is entitled Market-state-based planning for nation-state style prosperity: Reinventing the higher education “promise” to create a “win/win/win” for California. In it, she argues that higher education capacity discussions need to shift from a demand-driven model to a workforce-driven model. Using primarily projections made by the Public Policy Institute of California for the number of college degree-holding workers required to satisfy industry needs in California in 2025, Cooper shows that there is likely to be a massive shortfall of such workers by 2025 if long-standing growth rates in the UC and CSU systems are maintained. (In fact, the current budgetary mess in the state has led to shrinkage of both systems, so Cooper’s analyses can be considered “best case”.) Cooper’s projections show that to fill in the CSU portion of the 2025 shortfall, the system will need to open 12 new campuses prior to 2025 - an unimaginable outcome given the finances and political situation in the state. Cooper concludes, therefore, that the public sector alone cannot meet future workforce needs:
As components of the higher education system, the UC, the CSU, community colleges, and private and for-profit universities will each need to play a significant role in the future success of the state....Reorienting the state’s current trajectory will require nontraditional thinking and innovative solutions to change the current course.
As Cooper notes, in much of the world, for-profit higher education is stepping in to meet capacity problems that cannot be met within government's budgets. It is neither surprising - nor unreasonable - that we increasingly see a similar movement in the United States as the state is progressively less able to meet educational needs.
In the situation described by the Times-Herald, it seems that the negative effects of state budget cuts have lead to the positive result that the for-profit University of Phoenix is working collaboratively with various components of the California public higher education system to help meet student needs. The differing viewpoints held by the partners in these collaborations suggest that the interactions have the potential to be positive for all sides, especially if they lead to discussions of some of the critical questions for higher education. Among these questions might be: what should be the goals of higher education in this changing world?; how can the cost of providing higher education be contained?; and, what are the most effective approaches to student learning?
However, in order for these various players to produce a real “system” of higher education that meets the needs of the students and the workforce needs of the state, as suggested by Cooper, a number of things must happen. Most important, and perhaps most difficult: transferability of course credits must be assured amongst the various institutions. This is not unlike the problem being faced in Europe with the Bologna process. Successful broad transferability requires a focus on learning outcome measures, rather than on inputs or student hours in the classroom. As Europe is showing, it is possible for a very diverse set of institutions to agree on desired learning outcomes for various educational steps. The focus now is on the difficult task of creating outcomes measures that are recognized by all parties. The Bologna process, although primarily involving public institutions, does include a number of for-profit institutions. Thus, there is no reason that a similar process involving Cooper’s players could not succeed here in California (or other states). This would enable the coupling the strengths and resources of the different sectors in order to meet the challenges of providing high quality education in times of constrained resources.