Online Colleges as a Policy Bloc?

For-profit colleges in one camp and everyone else in another may be the prevailing theme of higher education policy this fall, but online institutions, regardless of their tax status, were all in one camp Tuesday at a discussion of the challenges they face in proving quality and value while offering a kind of learning that’s very different from the hidebound practices of traditional colleges and universities.

The dominant concern coming from the leaders of online programs at the seventh meeting of the Presidents’ Forum — a group of institutions that serve adult students primarily online — was proving they offer quality and value as the U.S. Department of Education and Congress begin roundabout efforts to measure those things.

“We need to again use better data to make our case … to tell our story in credible ways,” said Margaret Spellings, who served as secretary of education during George W. Bush’s second term. She is now senior adviser to the president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and consults for Education Management Corporation. “We’re seen as wild-eyed, often profit-making, the wild west of higher education, and often don’t get credit for what we do.”

The challenge of finding the right data to collect to get a better sense of what works and what doesn’t resurfaced throughout the daylong meeting, but there was little talk of exactly what those data should be. Gordon Freedman, vice president of global education strategy at Blackboard, suggested that analytic data from students’ interactions with his company’s products and other learning management systems could be a good place to start. Mark David Milliron, deputy director for postsecondary improvement at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, also pointed to better use of the data gleaned by online learning as a means for identifying struggling students and measuring outcomes.

At the core of the push for more data are the bigger goals that foundations, the Obama administration and business leaders have set out for higher education, said John F. Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, a private nonprofit New York institution that specializes in serving adult learners online. The forum and its members, he said, hope to take a leadership role to “try and address this issue of degree completion, as we try and address the issues of access, quality and accountability.”

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