Does Hillary Think Online Education Is The Same As For-Profit Education?

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Blake Neff Reporter
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The wording of Hillary Clinton’s recently-announced plan for reforming American higher education is raising questions about whether Clinton really knows that much about the issue.

In her campaign’s write-up of her proposed “New College Compact,” released Monday, Clinton declares firmly that “We must bring integrity to online learning and will not tolerate programs that fall short.” (RELATED: Get To Know Hillary’s $350 Billion College Plan)

As was first pointed out by Inside Higher Ed, Clinton’s wording implies that online colleges are inherently lacking in integrity, a wilderness of diploma mills and scams that currently cannot be fully trusted in providing education. Clinton seems to be drawing a strong equivalency between online programs and for-profit programs; just a few paragraphs later in her proposal, she pledges to “crack down on law-breaking for-profits.”

In fact, data shows that the vast majority of people involved in online college aren’t attending for-profit schools. In the fall of 2013, out of 2.6 million college students who were enrolled exclusively in distance education, just under half, 1.28 million, were enrolled at a public college or university. Out of those attending a private online program, 520,000 were attending a non-profit. Overall, only about one-third, or 856,000, of online college-goers were enrolled in a for-profit program, and that proportion is shrinking as enrollment in for-profit programs drops.

As online education grows, a vast array of well-regarded colleges, both public and private, are getting in on the action. U.S. News ranks the best programs, with Penn State’s 6,000-student World Campus getting the top spot for 2015. Even Clinton’s own alma mater, Wellesley College, is getting in on the online college game in a limited capacity.

Despite these major developments, though, Clinton appears to simply be dismissing modern online education as an endeavor devoid of the “integrity” possessed by other educational fields, something at least a few online education fans find a little offensive.

“As someone who has worked in distance education since the late ’80s, I did not realize that I worked in a field devoid of integrity,” Russell Poulin of WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies told Inside Higher Ed. “If they are not equating online learning with for-profit colleges, then I’m at a loss as to why they would want to throw a whole industry under the bus. First, not every for-profit institution was involved in the scandalous behavior. Second, tens of thousands of faculty and staff and millions of students who participate in distance learning should be upset.”

The integrity of online education isn’t the only way Clinton seems to muddle the exact nature of online degrees. Her New College Compact focuses on online programs as a means to obtain skill certificates and other technical training, when one of the most important developments in online education is their increasing role as a legitimate replacement to brick-and-mortar schools, offering a whole range of bachelor’s degree programs.

Arizona State University’s online degree program, which has famously struck a deal with Starbucks to offer free college to the company’s employees, offers bachelor’s degrees in everything from philosophy to electrical engineering. Students in the online program receive diplomas and transcripts identical to those of on-campus graduates.

Clinton’s slight of online programs appears to be entirely based on the bad reputation of for-profit colleges, which have had numerous scandals in recent years. But the issues of for-profit schools are hardly due to their online nature. For example, Corinthian Colleges, which rapidly imploded in the past year amid allegations of misleading students about their job prospects, primarily operated through dozens of physical campuses across the country. (RELATED: For-Profit College Closure Could Cost Taxpayers Hundreds Of Millions)

Interestingly, Clinton shifting criticisms of for-profit colleges onto the shoulders of all online learning has the effect of avoiding her own complicated link to for-profit education. Clinton has benefited from her husband Bill’s five-year role as honorary chancellor at Lauraute International Universities, a role that paid him $16.5 million. (RELATED: Bill Clinton Was Paid More Than $160 MILLION By A For-Profit College Company)

While Laureate runs some online programs, unlike some major for-profits (like the University of Phoenix) that’s not what it’s best known for, and that’s not what makes it controversial. Instead, what the program has come under fire for is buying up existing physical campuses and gutting their quality by aggressively upping enrollment in an effort to improve profit margins. In Chile, one of the schools it purchased even had its accreditation revoked after a panel found it had allowed enrollment to grow too much while allowing the graduation rate to drop significantly.

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