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Innovation in Education is Here. We're Ignoring It.

For profit-colleges are taking a beating. Don't let that distract you from the real innovation taking place.
To me, the more serious concern is that there are people doing for-profit education really right. I count our digital media arts college, Chicago’s Tribeca Flashpoint Academy, among them.
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For-profit education has been taking a beating lately. Enrollments are down. A bunch of (presumably former) employees of these schools did a lot of dumb, deceptive and greedy things, on tape and video no less. Some of these guys are to quality education what the Olive Garden is to Italian cuisine.

Ironically, the part that seems to be really upsetting people is that these colleges and universities are trying to make a profit. Call me crazy, but I thought making a profit was one of the most important things that a good business needed to do. Making a profit is how you stay in business, how your employees and families stay fed, and how the marketplace ultimately tells you that you’re doing the right things. Focusing on profitability helps to make sure that you keep your business and your offerings truly competitive.

Now, if you’re a well-regarded and selective non-profit college, you’ll always be turning a certain crowd of wanna-bes away; your tuition prices can soar every year; and your facilities and non-teaching faculty (and salaries) can grow to the sky. Those colleges are living off their endowments and the stock market, not the market for their services.

Eventually, every bubble bursts. I think we’re finally over the fantasy that everyone in America should, or can afford to, own their own home. In the same way, it’s pretty clear that not every high school graduate should go to an expensive four-year college in order to get a degree instead of getting prepared for a real job. There are plenty of alternative, faster, less expensive and more productive ways to prepare our graduates for today’s highly competitive global economy.

Now we’ve had a perfect storm of a continued crappy economy, collapsing employment opportunities, and a do-nothing Congress stuck in an election year. Then the economic bubble bursts, and the media and politicians need someone to blame. For the last couple of years, the easiest whipping boys have been the large, for-profit education companies.

Even though some of the biggest for-profit schools have fired many of their CEOs, they don’t really seem any more interested than the fat and happy non-profit colleges are in making substantive changes. Their students, just like ours, need the proper tools, training and technologies. Then they need pre-graduation job search support and networking assistance. These are time-, resource- and people-intensive changes. They don’t happen overnight, and they also don’t really scale that easily. And in the world of the giant, for-profit players, if something doesn’t scale, it doesn’t sell.

To me, the more serious concern is that there are people doing for-profit education really right.  I count our digital media arts college, Chicago’s Tribeca Flashpoint Academy, among them. Flashpoint is small but growing. We use an intense, hands-on, cross-disciplinary two-year program built to industry standards. We’re training hundreds of passionate and talented creative kids to get ready for real jobs in the rapidly expanding digital economy. Our work doesn’t end until their jobs begin.

I’m tired of all of the “for-profits” getting painted with the same brush as the big guys, who, by the way, definitely deserve some of the abuse they’re getting. I don’t want to see the baby--the right-time, right-place idea of high-end, high-tech vocational training--tossed out with the bums and the bathwater.

It also wouldn’t hurt if parents started asking for answers from all colleges. If we’re going to hold for-profit colleges accountable for real education value and real employment prospects, then we should be demanding the exact same results from the 90% of the college marketplace represented by the non-profit schools. As a group, they are doing an equally horrible job of equipping our graduates with the skills, work ethic and training they need today to succeed tomorrow and in the future.

IMAGE: Courtesy Tribeca Flashpoint Academy
Last updated: Nov 1, 2012

HOWARD TULLMAN | Columnist

Howard Tullman is the CEO of 1871 in Chicago where, at the moment, 260 digital startups are building their businesses every day. He is also the general managing partner of G2T3V, LLC and Chicago High Tech Investors – both early-stage venture funds; a member of Mayor Emanuel’s ChicagoNEXT Innovation Council; and Governor Quinn’s Illinois Innovation Council. He is an adviser to many technology businesses and an adjunct professor at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management. @tullman

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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