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Rethinking Education

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At the heart of the reauthorization debate over the "No Child Left Behind" law is a fundamental question about how we best educate our children to prepare them and our country to meet the dual challenges of the new century and of competitor nations seeking to knock America off the pedestal of world leader. As we have struggled to answer this question, one key lesson we have already learned is that education is about more than K-12 or post-secondary, it's about the lifelong process of educating our continuum of citizens to be on the cutting edge of knowledge.

Throughout our history, as we moved from voluntary to mandatory to universal education we have introduced new ideas and concepts to meet the changing nature of who we were trying to educate: the immigrant (both then and now); the farmer, the suburbanite; the city dweller; the poor. Each time a new idea was introduced -- compulsory education (and the taxes to pay for them), land grant colleges, community schools, all day kindergarten, charter schools, federal loans -- the established authority has resisted.

The latest idea to hit this wall of resistance is for-profit education. They are the latest in a long line of Barbarians at the Gate, challenging the established powers. They do it for the most American of reasons. They do it because there is a need and they have an idea on how to meet the demand. Because of the changing nature of our workforce, our culture, and our work environment, the time for for-profit education has arrived.

The educational challenges facing our nation's workforce are real. Recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that 90 percent of the fastest-growing jobs in the economy require higher education, yet more than 60 percent of Americans ages 25 to 64 have no postsecondary education credential.

The evidence indicates our traditional institutions of higher education cannot fill this education gap on their own, for two reasons: they cater to "traditional" students, and they lack the capacity.

According to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, only 27 percent of undergraduates are considered traditional students -- living on campus and attending classes full-time. For the majority who work full-time and/or raise a family while attending school, for-profit education institutions provide an approach to higher education that's more conducive to enabling students to earn a college degree while meeting their responsibilities at work and home.

The non-profit National Center for Higher Education Management Systems estimates that the U.S. will need 16 million more Americans to earn degrees by 2025 in order to remain competitive with other leading developed nations, representing a 37 percent increase in productivity per year. Conventional four-year colleges and universities cannot accomplish this on their own. If our nation is going to remain competitive, we must raise more working adults to higher skill levels and for-profit education is an important part of the process.

This is why they exist. There is room enough for all.

But the leaders at for-profit education institutions also know that they are not without their own internal challenges. As a sector in its relative infancy compared to their colleague institutions, for-profits have growing pains that must be addressed; moreover, regardless of sector there are always bad actors, and they must work with regulators to weed them out. But even a cursory historical analysis shows the same is and was true for the traditional education system as it developed over the years.

As for-profit institutions address their own shortcomings, they must work with traditional education institutions and the federal government to achieve those improvements. At the heart of all our institutions are students who strive to better themselves, their families, their communities, and their nation, and for-profit institutions want to help them achieve their goals.

In a famous soliloquy from the movie Field of Dreams, the hero of the film is told, "America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again." I agree: America does remake itself over and over again. That's what makes us America. For-profit education wants to be part of the next re-making of the American story.

William G. Tierney, Ph.D. is the Director, Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis; University Professor and the Wilber-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education at the Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California. He has co-authored a book on for-profit education: Tierney, William G. & Hentschke, Guilbert C. (2007). "New Players, Different Game: Understanding the Rise of For-Profit Colleges and Universities." Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.