College at a Crossroads

As the latest issue of the Future of Children reports, higher education in the US is changing dramatically. On the one hand, access to college has expanded at a remarkable rate. On the other hand, scores of students are finishing high school unprepared for college work. Meanwhile, today’s economy has left many public colleges and universities strapped for resources and unable to meet student demand. Thus, many students, particularly those from low-income families, are forced to either seek an alternative route or drop out.

One rapidly growing option for students is for-profit colleges. Also known as proprietary colleges, they often exist as large national chains led by online institutions. Future of Children authors David Deming, Claudia Goldin, and Lawrence Katz explain that for-profit colleges seem to be most helpful when they offer short, well-defined programs offering a clear path to a specific occupation. While these programs have grown to efficiently meet student demand as public institutions have struggled, their students carry higher levels of debt and are more likely to default on loans. Indeed, much of the revenue these institutions rely on comes from federal student aid. Moreover, the rate of return for these students is lower. Upon leaving school, they are more likely to be unemployed and have lower earnings than students at other institutions.

To keep up with student demand, many state systems and community colleges have sought to expand access to online learning programs. The Babson Survey Research Group estimates that by 2010, 31 percent of college and university students were enrolled in at least one online course. As Marketplace reports, more selective institutions may also begin offering more options for online learning. Examining the research, Bradford Bell and Jessica Federman find that online learning can be an effective tool in higher education, insofar as it creates conditions that are conducive to learning specific content. See the latest research on e-learning in the new issue of the Future of Children, Postsecondary Education in the United States.