Imagine going to college for four years, racking up $92,000 in student loans, graduating from college and then working at the same job you had while in college.  You can’t afford to buy a car and can barely afford your rent because half of your paycheck is taken up with student loans.  You use your credit card for the necessities that your paycheck doesn’t cover.   You hold your breath hoping you don’t have any major unexpected expenses because you couldn’t afford them on your $18-an-hour salary.

In short, you’re stuck.  And not in a pretty place.

That’s what happened to Angela Moore, 26, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Hartford three years ago.  A story about her plight on Yahoo! Finance is just one of many.  Her experience is not unique.  According to the Project on Student Debt, an advocacy group, 10% of four-year college graduates in 2008 walked away with $40,000 or more in debt.

What stands out about Amanda’s story is more than the hefty price-tag of her parchment;  it’s what that degree did – or did not – get her.

How Old school Approaches Can Be Failing New World Students

Quick:  Name five organizations you consider to be at the forefront of innovation.

Did you mention Google?   Apple?   Amazon?  If you’re like most people, you probably mentioned at least one of those companies.   But how many colleges or universities were on your list?  My guess is you didn’t mention a single one.  In Fast Company’s most recent list of the Top Ten Most Innovative Companies by Industry, education wasn’t even listed among the 24 most innovative industries.

Technology has lowered costs, increased efficiencies and improved customer experiences through personalization and customization in many industries.  Products like the iPod allow us to create our own unique listening experience by customizing our playlists.  Advances in search engines let us seek and find content specific to our needs and interests. Wikipedia – the collaborative, multilingual, web-based encyclopedia – encourages anyone from a Rhodes Scholar to an average Joe or Jane to update, correct, or add content.

But old school thinking has kept most traditional colleges and universities out of the innovation equation. As Bill Gates said in his 2010 annual letter on online learning, “…technology has hardly changed education at all.”

Traditional schools have been slow to catch up with the changes in technology, economy, and workforce patterns.

The Modern Solution: For-Profit Schools

What if Amanda could have gone to a school where classes were tailor-made to her specific learning needs, finances, and career goals?  What if she could have taken classes via a multimedia interface, chatted with other students online, met with her instructor via Skype, and virtually participated in an interactive online lab?  What if all of this would have cost her far less than the near six-figure price tag of her traditional university degree?

She could have done all of those things at a cost less than her traditional education. Many of these advances are here, thanks to private-sector inventiveness.  Edupreneurs—entrepreneurs who create for-profit academic and learning-based businesses—are beginning to innovate academia. Schools like Kaplan, Western Governor’s University, and Knewton are leading this education revolution.

Many of these for-profit schools allow learners to do what they do in their everyday worlds:  shape, manipulate, contribute to, and interact with content … and pay fair market price for the service.  These new-era schools are democratizing education, making it available to more than just those with a fat checkbook.

And perhaps most importantly—especially for people like Amanda—these innovative higher education organizations focus course content on career preparation and placement.

Six Benefits of For-Profit Schools for Non-Traditional Students

1. Flexibility: The “new world” student is active, mobile, time-starved, and often financially-strapped. Programs that offer online courses, or courses designed for mobile devices and tablets, allow busy adults to take courses as gaps in their daily schedules allow.

There are plenty of “new world” students taking these courses.  According to a study by market research firm Ambient Insight, by 2015, 25 million post-secondary students in the United States will take classes online.  At the same time, the number of students who take classes exclusively on physical campuses will drop by just over 10 million.

The demand for mobile learning is also growing.  Revenues for so-called “m-learning” companies are expected to reach $1.8 billion by 2015, according to Ambient’s research.

2.  Lower tuition costs: For-profit schools generally have lower tuition costs because they don’t offer housing, meals, or extra-curricular activities.  Also, materials costs are reduced because many courses are online and ebooks replace expensive-to-produce textbooks.

3.  Access to private loans: Lower-income students are often shunned by traditional colleges that may not be able to support the needs of those students.  For-profit colleges are often able to make private loans available to such students.

4. Workplace relevancy: According to a study by the Business Roundtable, half of U.S. employers see a size-able gap between their needs and the skills of employees.  Because for-profit schools are businesses whose success depends on staying current and relevant, they keep a close eye on emerging trends. If there is a new technology or a greater demand for a particular course or skill-set, for-profit schools are usually more eager to implement these changes and more likely to experiment with new ideas than traditional schools.

5. Customized courses: Students looking to master a particular skill can create a curriculum specific to that area, rather than enrolling in a traditional liberal arts program where courses may not directly relate to a student’s career choice.

6.  Cutting-edge content and innovative course design: Competition encourages for-profit schools to do everything they can to keep their students.  In a free-market system, the student can take his or her business to the school that provides the highest-quality education at the most affordable price.

One Last Thought…

Many traditional schools certainly offer high-quality programs.  But for students who simply cannot afford the price tag of a  four-year bricks-and-mortar program, for-profits provide an alternative.

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