Online Education at HFC: For Profit or For Students?

The future of online education at HFC has come into question since the Board of Trustees voted to allocate 1.5 million dollars to explore online education last fall.

Online courses have been a real benefit to many students and their flexibility has made them more convenient for students who have to balance work and family obligations while completing their degree. It has also proven profitable for institutions who have entered the online education arena.

Institutions like Southern New Hampshire University have benefitted from marketing its online degrees while maintaining traditional face-to-face education at its main campus. SNHU has become one of the largest non-profit online educators, with annual revenues of $200 million.

Their success is one that is enticing to colleges across the country including HFC, but recent studies, including those conducted by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, indicate that students in online courses are more likely to drop their classes than students in a face-to-face environment.

“In a face-to-face class I’ll start with 25 students and end up with 21, in an online class I’ll end up with about 18 or 17 students,” stated Scott M. Still an English instructor and Chair of the Committee for Online Learning and Teaching in the Communications Division at HFC.

English instructor Betsy Cohn has noticed similar attrition rates in her courses and says “We have tossed around moving toward a mandatory orientation for online classes,” which could help lower attrition rates. She added that there are currently no specific prerequisites to taking an online course.

There are presently several different types of online courses offered at HFC, but there are no degrees that can be obtained exclusively online. Although the college is accredited to offer online classes, it does not currently have the accreditation to offer degrees that can be obtained 100 percent online.

Dr. Adam L. Cloutier, Director of the Teaching and Learning Services Division, mentioned that there are already a number of programs that students can complete almost exclusively online which include General Business and Child Development though he also explained that there is currently no standardized structure for online courses at Henry Ford College. The content of an online class is formatted by the professor teaching it. Dr. Cloutier went on to say that “In the future I see HFC marketing online courses and fully online programs.”

There was a survey of 861 students conducted by Henry Ford College to attain their input on online classes. It was revealed that 66.99 percent of students who took online classes did so because they could not drive to or be on campus at a specific time. 61.37 percent of students agreed or strongly agreed that they were interested in taking some online classes but prefer to take other classes on campus.

These results correlate with those of a 2013 Public Agenda report conducted by the Kresge Foundation, which found that many community college students who take online classes wish they could take fewer online classes. The report also goes on to say that the majority of employers prefer applicants with a traditional degree from non-elite schools over ones with an online degree from a top university.

“I teach both in person and online, and I really like both for very different reasons,” said Cohn. She went on to explain that taking an online class takes more self discipline and structure as well as better reading skills.

For-profit online schools like Corinthian Colleges, Kaplan University, and the University of Phoenix have caused much controversy in recent years over allegations of giving misleading information to students as well as engaging in other fraudulent practices. Corinthian, which owned Everest Institute, Wyotech, and Heald College, went bankrupt in May of this year after reports emerged that its graduation and job placement rates were falsified. Subsequently, Corinthian’s access to federal financial aid got cut off by the Department of Education.

“If your sole intention is to make profit, then that is what your concern is,” stated Still. For-profit educational institutions are notorious for their predatory practices. According to a new study from the Center for American Progress, the University of Phoenix is ranked number three in producing graduate student debt in the 2013-2014 year with the debt accrued by its graduate students amounting to $493,078,509. That number is so high that the Department of Defense recently stated that they would not fund troops who enroll at the University of Phoenix. Proponents of for-profit online education have fought against more stringent governmental regulations.

In light of the recent scandals involving the predatory practices of for-profit educational institutions and crippling sums of student loan debt, policy makers are looking for solutions for holding institutions of higher education accountable. Michael Dannenberg and Mary Nguyen Barry of the Education Trust released a policy report in 2014 which proposes penalties for institutions that enroll Pell Grant-eligible students but have low graduation rates and low loan repayment rates.

When asked about his thoughts on the future of online education at HFC, Dr. Cloutier said “We’re never going to [do] away with [...] face-to-face campus interaction. I don’t see this college going completely online, but I do see online growth.” The debate over the implementation of for-profit online educational models is ongoing, and HFC is very much a part of it.

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