In the past several years, online higher education has come under increased scrutiny by the federal government and policymakers. As a relatively new trend, online education has been closely examined by some, not so closely examined by others, and has a number of critics. In a recent report called “Odd Man Out: How Government Supports Private-Sector Innovation, Except in Education,” published by the American Enterprise Institute, author John Bailey notes that an acute lack of support and engagement from government agencies to the private sector in education is not only out of sync with other public-private enterprises, it is counterproductive in attempting to reform higher education.
Bailey points out that the public sector has frequently employed the expertise of private industry in various attempts to solve the nation’s problems. For example, in March 2010, President Obama reached out to private-sector businesses, agreeing to provide some $150 billion in support of those businesses developing an alternative to foreign oil. He said to the CEOs in attendance, “’Your country needs you to mount a historic effort to end, once and for all, our dependence on foreign oil…And in this difficult endeavor, in this pursuit on which I believe our future depends, our country will support you.’”
In another example, Bailey points out that the Review of US Human Spaceflight Plans Committee established by the White House Office of Space and Technology Policy recommended that NASA seek private sector assistance in developing commercial spacecraft. “The review argued that this would free NASA to focus its attention and investment on developing more advanced capabilities, particularly in deep-space exploration.” In each of these examples, a significant problem or dilemma has been acknowledged and government has rightly recognized that private sector innovation has the business agility and market understanding to propose and execute a meaningful solution.
In the realm of education, however, the pattern of public-private cooperation has not held true. Bailey states that “Instead of involving the private sector, education policymakers have actually created policy and funding barriers that skew support to non-profits and prevent for-profits from participating in programs aimed at improving teaching or learning.” He uses the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s Investing in Innovation competition as an example of education policymakers “shutting out” private sector for-profit institutions. He explains that Congress wrote that legislation in a way that effectively excludes the for-profit education sector.
In explaining why government is hesitant to engage the private sector in the higher education debate, Bailey recounts some of the most pronounced criticisms of online education. He explains that many fear that government support for for-profit universities could lead to “market distortion.” On the other hand, systematically excluding the private sector can lead to its own variety of market distortions and fundamentally, “these concerns do not outweigh the benefits of having a thriving marketplace of private-sector entrepreneurs tackling social problems, particularly in education.” Interestingly, there also seems to be resistance to government engagement of private sector education institutions because of a belief by some that one should not make a profit on education. It is difficult, in my opinion, to justify this notion – especially in light of the fact that government engagement of private industry in the areas of clean energy, healthcare, and space exploration has set the precedent that it is okay to turn a profit while addressing some of the nation’s greatest challenges. Additionally, no president of a non-profit college or university operates continuously on negative margins. Prudent managers of non-profits are obligated to cover operating costs or explain why not. The non-profit system actually encourages continued increases of expenditures during good economic times since the tax code questions a non-profit that continually generates a substantial surplus. In order to reduce surpluses, additional projects are funded. In addition, the taxpayer subsidies of non-profit entities are already very large. In addition to allowing families of students to receive education tax credits, alumni and parents are allowed to deduct charitable gifts, and the institution does not pay income taxes on its endowment earnings, the receipt of charitable gifts, and generally, little to minimal property taxes and no income taxes are paid.
Private enterprise plays an integral part in the fulfillment of national policy initiatives. As Bailey points out, “Private industry routinely takes technologies pioneered by the government and turns them into cheap, reliable and robust industries.” Why should online higher education be any different? The federal government developed the initial product – education (via compulsory, free public K-12 education, and eventually the establishment of government subsidized institutions of higher education) – and placed significant value in obtaining that product. In an era of considerable funding cuts and a bleak financial outlook for most institutions, it seems that now is the optimal time to engage the private sector for its opinion and ideas in order to reach President Obama’s stated education goals.