I’ve argued that there’s a way for-profit colleges to increase their credibility as genuine educational institutions rather than dropout factories running on federal student aid: they could focus their efforts and investment dollars on creating high-quality courses and courseware that the non-profit world might respect. And now, one for-profit institution, Capella University, seems to be doing exactly that.
Over the past couple of weeks, Inside Higher Education, the higher-ed Web magazine, has featured blog posts by Joshua Kim, director of learning and technology for Dartmouth’s mostly online Master of Health care Delivery Science Program, jointly administered by Dartmouth’s business school and its Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice. Kim, who holds a doctorate in sociology from Brown, interviewed two Capella vice presidents, Mike Buttry (corporate communications) and Keith Koch (Next Generation Learning) and came away liking a lot of what he heard. He noted for example, in a Feb. 1 post, that Capella, which is 100 percent online, uses the same technology platforms (namely, versions of Blackboard) as nonprofit universities, which it supplements “with large numbers of custom-produced rich media educational learning objects and simulations” to develop more than 1,400 separate online courses. In addition, Kim wrote, Capella seemed to be highly interested “in engaging with the rest of the higher ed community to differentiate itself from other for-profit institutions.”
Just three days after Kim posted his assessment, Capella Education, the corporation that operates Capella University, announced a substantial (although as yet-undisclosed) investment in Sophia, a tiny startup company that will start hosting on its website free of charge in March what it calls “learning packets.” The learning packets, put together by top teachers in their academic fields as identified by Sophia in a complex rating system, are brief lessons, sometmes accompanied by video, that can be accessed on Sophia’s website and found with a search engine.
The Sophia system resembles professors’ current use of Blackboard and similar learning-management systems to post instructional material on the Internet, except that Sophia’s learning packets will be available to the public and thus can be used by any student on any campus anywhere. The idea is that, say, if you’ve forgotten how to factor a polynomial (or never really learned how in high school), a Sophia learning packet will lead you through the process. Sophia also plans to develop private versions that it would license to colleges (and thus make money), including a system that would allow instructors to follow individual students’ progress through the packets and thus integrate the online instructional units into their syllabi.
All of this tends to bolster Capella’s assertion that it is indeed serious about making meaningful contributions to high-quality online education. Indeed Capella has always stood out from the for-profit crowd. For one thing, the vast majority of Capella’s 38,000 students are enrolled in master’s and doctoral programs (in such fields as education, business, psychology, and technology), and the average age of its students is 39. Ninety percent of them are working and pursuing their degrees part-time. With a mature, motivated population of students who have mostly already earned college degrees, Capella has been able to sidestep some of the problems that have plagued the numerous career colleges catering to marginally prepared learners aspiring to low-level jobs. For example, although 78 percent of Capella students receive federal education aid, its two-year default rate for federally assisted loans is only 3.3 percent, compared with 11.6 percent for proprietary colleges in general (a figure that jumps to 25 percent after three years) and lower than either non-profit four-year public colleges (6.0 percent after two years ) and non-profit four-year colleges (3.8 percent).
Kim interviewed Buttry and Koch in the context of an ongoing project that he described in January as “engaging with” administrators and faculty in the for-profit sector, in order to improve the course design for his own graduate degree program at Dartmouth and also to try to distinguish the career colleges that offer “a terrific education and good value for the tuition dollar” from those that “put out an inferior product.” He wrote, “We tend to lump together all for-profit EDU institutions in a way that we don’t do for non-profits,” he wrote.
Not that Kim didn’t find some room for improvement at Capella. He noted that the university could do a better job of sharing its course designs and best practices with other institutions, in the fashion of non-profit institutions where transparency is part of the scholarly and pedagogical culture. Although neither Kim nor Buttry responded to my e-mailed requests for interviews, I suspect that the transparency that non-profit institutions take for granted is a problem for the highly competitive for-profit sector, and that reluctance to share information, although understandable, will continue to detract from the for-profits’ credibility. And although Capella says that 80 percent of its 1,400 faculty members hold doctorates and 30 percent of them teach full time, the university’s website does not provide a complete list of faculty, much less their curricula vitae or any links to their scholarly publications (such information is standard in the non-profit academic sector). I would add something else missing from Capella’s site: how much Capella costs. For that information you have to consult an “enrollment counselor.”
Still, it is unusual for a for-profit institution to receive any praise from an Ivy League academic. Capella is clearly doing something right, as an institution striving to provide high-quality online coursework, and its new alliance with Sophia suggests a dedication to joining forces with the non-profit academic world and its students in adding an online component to conventional bricks-and-mortars higher education. In the scandal-plagued and low-performing world of proprietary education, there is something to cheer about with Capella.