Thoughts and Red Flags About “Academic Partnerships” and EMU

Hey, did you miss me again? Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve written anything here. It certainly hasn’t been the result of a lack of news around campus– there have been lots of things posted on the EMUTalk Facebook Group. I’ve just been pretty swamped with both life and the day-job over the last month. But I am sensing a little breathing room now.

Anyway: last Tuesday, I went to one of the informational discussions about EMU’s deal with Academic Partnerships. I blogged about this a bit back in December. Because there was some push-back from faculty and the EMU-AAUP, Provost Rhonda Longworth (and other folks in that office) decided to hold a couple “Dialogue Sessions” with faculty about the deal.  There’s another one of these sessions coming up on Friday February 10, by the way.

On the plus-side of things, it appears this isn’t going to cost EMU anything– meaning I don’t think EMU is putting money into this on the front-end; it’s all Academic Partnerships’ resources and risk. So I guess that’s kind of okay. But there was a lot that came up directly and indirectly at this discussion that makes me wonder.

First, there’s the legitimacy of Academic Partnerships and it’s founder/CEO, Randy Best.  I was going to describe AP as “sketchy,” but that might go too far, though maybe not. One example of what I mean: When you visit their web site and click on the link “AP University Partners,” you don’t actually get a list of universities that AP has partnered with at all. It’s more of a “why universities partner with AP” (and the answer is to boost enrollment in online programs). Longworth et al seemed kind of vague about knowing what other universities AP is/has working/worked with. Not really knowing who else has partnered up with AP is red flag number one.

It’s not that hard to find some articles about AP deals gone bad. For example, “Deal Dead in Ohio” is a 2009 Inside Higher Ed piece about how a deal between “Higher Education Holdings” (which is what the company was called before AP) and the University of Toledo went bad. Also from 2009 and Inside Higher Ed comes “So Many Students, So Little Time” which goes into detail about an arrangement with Arkansas State that went off the rails. One line from that article I worry might be foreshadowing for EMU’s partnership: “Administrators are all very clear about what they demand upon entering these contracts; whether that’s what they actually get, however, is a matter of increasing debate.” That’s another red flag.

A little more Googling pretty quickly turns up some eyebrow-raising articles about Randy Best too. Best is not an educator who became an entrepreneur; he’s an entrepreneur (among other things, he used to be in a business that manufactured Girl Scout cookies) who got into education. Say what you want about the rise of MOOC providers like Coursera, Udacity, and EdX– and by the way, AP is not about facilitating MOOCs but online programs– but at least those providers were founded by educators who became entrepreneurs. The most damning article on Best comes from the Texas Observer, “Randy Best Is Going to Save Texas’ Public Universities, or Get Rich Trying.” It’s a long article that goes into Best’s background with how he got rich off of “No Child Left Behind” and then steadily built HEH which became “Academic Partnerships.” Red flag number three.

In the meeting with Longworth, we heard that AP provides what it calls “retention specialists” to recruit students into online programs and keep them enrolled. To me, that sounds way too much like the terminology proprietary schools use to scam/recruit students into worthless degree programs. There was also was some confusion/lack of clarity on the role of “academic coaches” assigned to these online courses/online programs– who hires them, what their qualifications are, and so forth. Red flag four.

And then there is just the whole “why does this make sense” question. The big program that AP wants us to launch as an online program is the BSN Completion degree (and apparently, that is still not a done deal yet with the School of Nursing). This is a very high in demand program all over the country because there is a lot of incentive for Registered Nurses to get the BS degree– in fact, it seems like most of AP’s business is in these kinds of programs. What AP brings to the deal, according to Longworth, is marketing and support, but EMU (and the School of Nursing specifically) gets to maintain academic control and integrity of its program. But the reason why EMU’s Nursing program can’t admit all of the students it wants to admit into the BSN Completion program right now is there aren’t enough faculty to teach in the program, and that’s all about maintaining academic control and integrity. It has nothing to do with recruiting/marketing to new students.

Conversely, if we had an online degree program in Written Communication (which is the program I teach in), we would probably need some marketing to recruit students. We’re kind of small, and while it is a great major for all kinds of reasons, it’s not in the same level of demand as the BSN Completion program. So if a company like AP came in and could help us attract students to an online degree in writing, well, that might be a good thing– because we have the faculty but we could use more students.

In any event, I tried asking a version of this question several times: Why does EMU need a company like AP to help “market” a program that already has a higher demand than we can possibly satisfy with our current faculty staffing? I don’t feel like that question ever got answered.

Last but not least, there’s the other program that AP is apparently interested in, which is an online degree of “General Studies,” which would basically be an online version of a program that exists at EMU now, the Individualized Studies Program.  How this would work seems pretty murky to me.

Right now, the program is run out of the University Advising and Career Development Center and it is basically set up to help students who have a lot of miscellaneous credits get some kind of college degree. I’ve actually had a fair number of these students over the years because I happen to teach a couple “Writing Intensive” courses online (and these students need at least one WI course just every other student at EMU) and I have to say these students are almost always “unique cases,” so to speak. I’m talking about students who have transfer credits from four or five different universities going back a decade, and they still can’t graduate because these credits aren’t in a coherent program of study.

Now, I’m okay with EMU’s ISP program as it is because it’s small and personalized, and if we can help individual students resolve their unique situation, that’s fine. But we sure as heck don’t want to get into a situation where EMU (via AP) is recruiting hundreds or maybe even thousands of these students into this program. That’s where we start crossing the line from legitimate online program of study into diploma mill.

Let me end with a longish quote from that Texas Observer article that sort of sums things up for me overall:

“’I think the big picture is that higher education is becoming more and more a business and less and less a public service,’ says Jack Zibluk, a former faculty senate president at Arkansas State University-Jonesboro, who spoke out against a deal with Best in 2008. ‘This may be part of the business of higher ed in the future, but my concern is, at what cost? What kind of education are you going to get as part of that business model?’”

Best’s critics aren’t against online education, but they wonder why a university, with all its resources and scholars, needs a for-profit company to develop online courses and recruit students. Couldn’t the schools launch online courses themselves and avoid turning over so much tuition money to Best? Some critics see administrators and for-profits like Academic Partnerships cashing in while faculty get saddled with more work. To them, the company looks like a pipeline from the public coffers to Best’s bottom line. It’s a familiar charge against him.

 

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