A Low-Cost, Binge-Learning Model for Higher Ed

by James A. Bacon

Perhaps the most interesting company headquartered in Virginia today is Herndon-based Strategic Education Inc. The company made a brief splash in the news yesterday when it announced a deal to acquire two Australian investor-funded universities for $643 million in cash. But the company, which generates roughly $1 billion a year in revenue and is poised to disrupt the higher-education sector, has generated remarkably little media attention.

The for-profit company owns Strayer University, which enrolls more than 5,000 students at its Virginia campuses; Capella University, an online college; the Jack Welch Management Institute, which delivers online business education; an engineering school for women; software coding schools; and Sophia Learning, which delivers low-cost, self-paced courses for college credit, among other enterprises.

Like nonprofit colleges and universities, Strategic Education is being forced to re-evaluate its business model in the era of COVID-19. The epidemic has negatively impacted both Strayer’s and Capella’s summer academic-term enrollment. However, the company is far more flexible and decisive than nonprofit institutions, many of which are still dithering over whether to hold classes this fall or switch to online learning.

As Executive Chairman Robert S. Silberman said in a recent earnings conference call:

The coronavirus pandemic is … highlighting some of the significant advantages of our academic model and our comfort with online academic technology. … We will almost certainly make permanent our transition of Strayer University to a fully online model, similar to Capella University. While we will still maintain physical locations in our geographic markets for academic support, faculty coordination, international student classes, and brand building, we will be able to significantly reduce those existing campus footprints and their associated costs.

Strayer is charging tuition comparable to that of public universities — $1,480 per course, or $14,800 for a full year-long course load. That compares to, say, Virginia Commonwealth University, which charges $14,830 for two semesters of in-state undergraduate tuition and mandatory fees. Unlike public universities, Strayer is not supported by millions of dollars in state aid for higher education. Indeed, it pays taxes. (Capella’s online courses are even less expensive, the equivalent of $12,330 for a 30-credits-a-year course load.)

While academic costs increased to serve growing enrollment in 2019, Strategic Education achieved $50 million in reductions to non-academic, corporate, and administrative operating costs last year. Cutting administrative overhead — what a concept!

Strategic Education’s primary market is adults who want to acquire skills and earn degrees, but its Sophia Learning enterprise is aimed at traditional undergraduates. For now, Strategic Learning is partnering with existing institutions rather than delivering direct to students. The learning platform has 150,000 registered students. The courses are free for now, but the company expects to implement a modest charge soon.

Online learning is still relatively new, and educators are still figuring out how to make it effective. Strayer has been investing in a new Strayer Studios course format. Documentary filmmakers work with faculty members to build story-driven narratives around case studies. The approach has shown preliminary improvements in completion rates, grade point averages, and student reviews. States Silberman in a 2019 letter to shareholders:

We use the term “binge learning” to describe our objective. We want the academic material to be so interesting that the student literally cannot turn it off.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Strategic Education and the nonprofit educational sector is that Strayer and Capella are focused on delivering value to their customers, the students, not the demands of internal constituencies. The company strives to deliver results at a competitive price. I got no sense from my admittedly superficial review of Strategic Education web resources that the company is consumed with the implementation of social justice ideology. In Virginia 52% of Strayer’s student body of 5,420 is black. The primary concern, it appears, is equipping its graduates with the skills they need to get good jobs. Some might say that that’s the ultimate form of social justice.

In 2019, reflecting the earning environment before COVID-19, Strategic Education increased its operating profit margin to 19.5% from 14.7% in 2018. Clearly, the educational model is financially sustainable. Indeed, in a functioning capitalist system, the company’s high profit margins should send a signal that online learning has room for more competitors and more innovation. 

Nobody’s perfect. Many educators are convinced that an online education can’t possibly measure up to an in-person education. But as many public institutions shift to online learning during the COVID-19 crisis, the differences fade to nothing. Indeed, Strategic Education, which has made a greater investment in online learning than almost any public university, might have the edge. I, for one, won’t be surprised if Strayer, Capella and Sophia eat the lunch of traditional institutions.

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40 responses to “A Low-Cost, Binge-Learning Model for Higher Ed

  1. Lord. Lord. I cannot believe my eyes!!

    who says distance learning doesn’t work?

    and all this stuff about Capitalism… be still my heart!

    Prior to COVID19 – all we heard about was TED and the Khan Academy.. YouTube, but since then all we hear is how awful it is!

    Crybabies, get off your arses… and do your job.

    • That’s absolutely right, Larry. There is no difference whatsoever between a 9 year old boy learning arithmetic because he is 9 and is learning his life skills and a 42 year old woman learning accounting because she wants to improve her chances in the job market. None at all. All distance learning is exactly the same, because all students are exactly the same.

      Honestly…

  2. Lots of troubled history with these firms

  3. Baconator with extra cheese

    Yep. For profit “colleges” have extracted tons of $$$ from the feds and have left those who can’t afford it with the crushing burden of student loand sans degrees and with classes that don’t transfer.
    All in the name of “get your degree in half the time….” another predatory getbrich quick scheme in a lot of cases.

    • Geeze – that’s what Bacon claims traditional higher ed has done to folks, no? Besides what happened to MOOC?

      • Well of course there is a difference especially for K-3 . but the higher up in the grades – online is very doeable.

        So, should not have implied all…

        My own county is ability going to have in-person for some kids – who have challenges… with the proviso that if all goes well , they’d expand it. They’re shooting for 2 days for half and 2 days for the other half – for K-6

  4. There have indeed been many predatory for-profit “colleges.” Most of them have been fly-by-night. I don’t recall seeing any evidence that that’s the case with Strayer or Capella. If anyone has seen such info, please let me know. Strategic Education claims that the default rates on its loans are below the national average.

      • The education model is hard to adapt to a business model. “The Customer Is Always Right” conflicts with graded achievement.

        That there is great dissatisfaction in a public review forum is not surprising. Check out “Rate My Professor” sometime. Yikes! Fortunately, after 5 years of not teaching, my page was archived. Wish I had downloaded it to a PDF. Some of the comments were priceless.

        The problem is motivated reviewers. Let’s face it, the dissatisfied are always highly motivated… consider Kerry. Hell, consider BR in toto. For them life is, similar to “Groundhog Day”, waking up daily to the same song on the clock-radio… “He’s tellin’ me more and more about some useless information,… I can’t get no…”

        • Well… folks say they learned nothing useful in school, eh?

          • Nancy_Naive

            Hell, they even sing it. The liberal arts parts of my education came mostly in high school. It ws there when I read Plato, Sextus Empiricus, Homer, Virgil, Marlowe. Two years of World Literature.
            College was mostly mathematics, physics and compsci — 54 semester hours in undergrad math, 21 and 18 in the other two. I somewhat regret it.

  5. Baconator with extra cheese

    Fair enough if Strayer is a good player.

  6. Interesting. Adult continuing education is an excellent use of online learning. Of course, it has a history of fraud, both financial and academic, but that’s beside the point. Technically, it’s doable.

    Still, it’s somewhat fascinating that the Republicans are demanding the K-12 public school teachers shall return to work because they are essential employees… ergo, public schools are essential. “Wait no! Privatize!”

    Which is it?

  7. From the Strayer website, here are the fields/areas of concentration in which it offers bachelor’s degrees:
    Accounting
    Applied Science and Management
    Business Administration
    • Entrepreneurship
    • Finance
    • Health Service Admin
    • Hospitality and Tourism Mgt.
    • Human Resources Mgt.
    • Joe Gibbs Performance Mgt.
    • Management
    • Marketing
    • Project Mgt.
    • Retail Mgt.
    • Social Media Marketing
    Criminal Justice
    • Computer Forensics
    • Crime and Criminal Behavior
    • Criminal Justice Administration
    • Homeland Security and Emergency Management
    • Probation and Parole
    Information Technology
    • Cybersecurity
    • Data Analytics
    • Data Management
    • IT Project Mgt.
    • Networking
    • Software Development

    In addition to courses in these areas, there are a smattering of courses in liberal arts and math.

    This is not education. It is training. There is a place for it, I concede. But, if one has ambitions to become a mathematician, engineer, doctor, teacher, physicist, biologist, chemist, ecologist, lawyer, etc., this is not the place to go.

    Ideally, higher education is a way of passing on the heritage and values of Western Civilization and introducing youth to similar values of other cultures, as well as to help youth develop their minds and give them a basis for exploring new ideas and problems. I may be idealistic, impractical, and old-fashioned, but I hope that the Strayer model does not become the predominant model for higher education in this country.

    • I can’t work… I was trained to think!

      No Dick. You’re right. You can read daily the results of the loss of a liberal education.

    • Good point but these days, only a small number of 4-year college folks these days actually go on to become these professions.

      A bunch end up in jobs that “require a degree” – but .. just a “generic” degree… not a licence …to “practice”.

      A lot of American kids don’t actually want a tough hard science degree.

      These days – when you look in the physician directory – it’s chock-a-block with foreign surnames.

      • You would hope that businesses and government, not just the professions, would want employees who had a broad education and had been taught to think critically.

        • Someday I’ll understand why proficiency in advanced math doesn’t demonstrate critical thinking. No doubt that day will be the day before I finally (metaphorically) kill myself after trying to teach one more English major how to write a computer program.

          • Two trains are driving toward one another. The first train leaves Town A at 5am traveling at 60 miles per hour. The second train leaves Town B at 7am traveling at 70 miles per hour. the distance between Town A and Town B is 455 miles. What is the EXACT time that the collision will occur?

            sounds critical to me…….. 😉

          • Dick Hall-Sizemore

            Of course, advanced math can demonstrate critical thinking. It is just that math and English majors have different types of thinking. Not always, however. I know one person who had a double major in chemistry and biology and probably had enough credit hours to be an English major, as well.

          • Questions like this often have appeared in the back of the textbook under “optional advanced” or some such.

            So someone may know how to manipulate an equation but not know what equations to use or set up for a given problem.

            The vast majority of college students don’t care for higher math – Calculus, Linear Algebra, etc but beyond that those word problems are where critical thinking is pretty much mandatory in order to know first, how to set up the equations to solve the problem.

            Even some of those in the higher math track have trouble with this kind of problem solving but just about everything we depend on technology-wise these days rooted in that ability to look at a real world problem and be able to understand it AND articulate it AND know how to represent it in equation form.

            All of us actually see it and use it every day but don’t really recognize it nor the math behind it.

            Take that 7-day moving average… and from the data – devising an equation to represent a smooth version of the raw data:

          • Larry,

            A couple of questions:

            Will there actually be a collision? You told us the trains are travelling towards each other but you did not tell us whether they are actually on the same track.

            At what rate did each train accelerate to it’s stated velocity?

            😉

        • “You would hope that businesses and government, not just the professions, would want employees who had a broad education and had been taught to think critically.”

          I hope so to, but instead of being taught critical thinking, today’s public education and higher education gives gives students indoctrination, lies, anger, shame and victim-hood. For instance:

          “In response to numerous schools adopting a history curriculum based on The New York Times’s 1619 Project, Sen. Tom Cotton proposed a bill that would deny them federal funding. The 1619 Project is a series of essays asserting that the United States was founded on slavery and that its institutions continue to discriminate against black Americans. The curriculum is designed to introduce these arguments and themes to the classroom.

          Several prominent historians have criticized the 1619 Project’s inaccuracies and obvious narrative-peddling. To introduce this into the classroom would give students a warped view of America and completely misrepresent of history as a discipline.

          Most of the writers of the 1619 Project are not historians with expertise, either, but journalists offering biased and uninformed takes on American history. They are not doing the hard work of synthesizing historical data into a coherent vision of the past; they are pulling stories out of thin air.

          To her credit, the project’s leader Nikole Hannah-Jones is quite open about her intentions, which, first and foremost, is to guilt Caucasian Americans into paying slavery reparations. As Hannah-Jones exclaimed, “If you read the whole project, I don’t think you can come away from it without understanding the project is an argument for reparations.”

          See:https://thefederalist.com/2020/07/30/how-public-schools-paved-the-way-for-americans-to-believe-the-1619-project/

        • Both poetry and music require at least a visceral understanding of mathematical concepts.

        • @Wayne – beats me, I copied the problem verbatim….

          😉

          and yes, I notice things like that also – but the intent of the problem is to get one to focus on what you do see and learn how to generate a generalized equation that accurately predicts the outcome.

          So the basic constructed problem is actually much easier than the real life version. Sort of the difference between a 3-degree model using a single point-source body and a 6-degree model using the actual dimensions, mass, weight, etc of the body.

          In the case of the trains – wind direction and speed, humidity – on a dynamic basis… the friction on the trainset wheels, etc – likely dozens or more of variables.

          And that’s actually part of critical thinking – to realize all the factors that are in play and how to properly represent them, etc.

          Then… you gotta run test cases of a bunch of train scenarios and see how well your equations actually do represent what happened – what is your error? how accurate do you want your model to be? Can that model be used in a real world situation for practical purposes, etc, etc..

          But you gotta start with the simple equations first….and that pretty much clears the room for most folks!!! (and yes, I’m one that would be leaving that room also!)

          😉

  8. What can be worse than what we have?

    For example:

    Nationally, total student debt exceeds credit card debt, surpassing $1.5 trillion and increasing at the rate of $100 billion annually.

    These cost are rising even among students graduating on time. But most don’t. Many colleges accredited by the Southern Commission graduate fewer than 25% of those who enroll. Many take six years to earn a four-year degree, dramatically increasing their cost and debt — and they’re the lucky ones. At least they get a degree. Others simply get a bill. Dropout rates are scandalous. Many students pay for years before dropping out. Of those who do manage to graduate, some discover that they have earned worthless degrees. Forty-five percent of students learn “nothing” their first two years at college, and 36% have still learned nothing after four years, according to Professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa who tested 2,300 students from the Class of 2009 that attended 24 accredited colleges. (See “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.”)

    Instead of turning its inquisitorial gaze upon UVa, the Southern Commission would do well to examine some of its 800 member institutions with demonstrable problems. Take Texas. Seventy-nine of every 100 public college students in Texas start in junior college. Only two of those 79 earn a 2-year degree on time; only seven graduate in four years. Only 5 of 21 students who begin at a four-year Texas college graduate on time, and only 13 of those 21 earn a degree after studying for eight years. Far too often, college students throughout the other ten southern states accredited by the agencyconfront similar fates. Four-year graduation rates include:

    Florida – 35.6%
    Georgia – 24.3%
    Kentucky – 20%
    Louisiana – 15.8%;
    Mississippi – 22.4%
    North Carolina – 36.5%
    Tennessee – 31.9%
    Virginia – 45%
    West Virginia – 22.2%

    The reasons are many for such drop out rates. Students often are not prepared for college work but are admitted anyway. Many get lost in higher education’s “Bermuda Triangle,” taking so many remedial courses they never get to take a college course for credit. But they get the bill, and oftentimes too so does Uncle Sam.

    Who is supervising this awful state of affairs? The leaders of the Southern Commission include:

    The president of Delta State University, which graduated only 19.9% of its four-year students within four years. Fewer than half (46.6%) matriculate within six years. Its president is chairman of the Commission.
    The president of Huston-Tillotson University, which graduated some 11.5% four-year students in 4 years, while another 12.7% earned a degree after six years.
    Along with the chairman and vice chairman, the presidents of 11 other colleges sit on the Commission’s powerful Executive Council. A sampling of their four-year graduation rates ranges from 13.1% to 22%.

    What are these leaders doing, and why? Who knows? Over its 60-year history of accrediting colleges to qualify for Federal student aid, the Southern Commission, as best we can tell, has never revoked an accreditation unless the member was on the verge of bankruptcy anyway. Nor has it established, published, or enforced clear fact-based performance standards that work to insure that our students in need receive the education they pay for. Why?

    For more, see:

    https://www.baconsrebellion.com/wp/inquisitor-investigate-thyself/

    I believe the jig is up for these thoroughly corrupted traditional institutions of higher education. The post covid world now will turn them upside down. Most are finished. New models are arising now and surely some of those will break the code of technology enhance learning and blow the old institutions out of the water, unless they adapt, which only a few seem capable of.

    • “Many students pay for years before dropping out.”

      “Seven years of college down the drain…”

      …and he managed to become a US Senator.

      🙂

  9. Pingback: Un modèle d’apprentissage intensif à faible coût pour l’enseignement supérieur – Marketing World

  10. The essential goal of K-3 is to “learn to read”.

    After that is accomplished – it shifts to ” read to learn” for the rest of our lives.

    So K-3 needs someone to “help” kids “learn to read” – and kids have several different basic learning styles:

    There are currently seven learning styles:

    Visual (spatial) Learner. Visual learners are those who prefer learning by observing things. …
    Aural (auditory) Learner. …
    Verbal (linguistic) Learner. …
    Physical (kinesthetic) Learner. …
    Logical (mathematical) Learner. …
    Social (interpersonal) Learner. …
    Solitary (intrapersonal) Learner

    A good (well trained, experienced, and skilled) teacher knows this and can discern for each child their primary learning style… and then configure the “in-person” to that need.

    But if you look at reading test scores – only 1/3 of kids are “proficient” (by NAEP and PISA standards) – and most economically disadvantaged kids fall in the less proficient or worse categories.

    But back to the subject of this post.

    Kids (students of any age) can learn from online and from software and from educational toys also … In fact, some software can more quickly determine a basic learning style than a newbie teacher with 20 kids can figure out in a timely manner. Some early education is about trying to understand what a kids’ abilities are and not.

    but even an “in-person” teacher can use software to assess the learning styles of the student and from that determine what learning steps to follow.

    online/software can and does function as a personal tutor… even for young kids… but certainly for high school and college kids – the “in person” thing for older is somewhat about someone standing over the student and forcing them to do the work…as much as it is “teaching”.

  11. No, wrong. Learning to read is learning to become human. Machines cannot teach children to gain their humanity through learning to read. Bots are not our goal set for our children, humanity is our and their goal. Children need human teachers so they can read great books in ways that impart humanity of the them, that critical and essential basket of wonders empathties, and sensitivities.

  12. Eric the Half a Troll

    Yes, higher education should go online… see how well it worked for the music industry… especially the artists… oh, and the quality of their products… BitTorrent University?… 🤔

  13. UVA professor E. D. Hirsch is our best guide to how to teach our children how to read, and why they are failing to learn how to read, and to thus learn by reading, including failing to earn their full humanity.

    His books on the subject include:

    Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987)

    The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (1988)

    The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them (1996)

    The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know by E. D. Hirsch, Joseph F. Kett and James Trefil (2002)

    The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children (2006)

    The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools (2010)

    Why Knowledge Matters (2016)

  14. UVA is the home of PALS which is an important learning assessment tool used in Virginia and other states and there is quite a bit involved in it and it’s not in all college curriculums for education degrees.

    It’s hard to tell if PALS is used in all schools in Virginia also… especially in schools with large numbers of economically disadvantaged.

    “PALS 1-3 and PALS Plus are used with children in 1st through 8th grades to identify students at risk of reading difficulties. These assessments are designed to measure children’s knowledge of important literacy fundamentals and can be used as a diagnostic tool to provide teachers with explicit information to help guide their teaching.

    ENTRY LEVEL
    PALS 1-3 and PALS Plus are leveled instruments that are used to (a) screen and identify students in need of additional instruction based on their Entry Level task scores, and (b) diagnose specific skill deficits in students whose Entry Level scores do not meet a benchmark that represents minimum grade-level criteria. Those students then proceed to subsequent diagnostic levels of PALS (Level B tasks, and Level C tasks).

    SPELLING

    WORD RECOGNITION IN ISOLATION

    LEVEL A: ORAL READING IN CONTEXT

    PASSAGE READING

    TIMING PASSAGE READINGS

    COMPREHENSION

    FLUENCY

    LEVEL B: ALPHABETICS

    ALPHABET RECOGNITION

    LETTER SOUNDS

    CONCEPT OF WORD
    The Concept-of-Word task measures children’s ability to accurately touch words in a memorized rhyme as well as their ability to use context to identify individual words within a given line of text. Both of these phenomena are important precursors to learning to read.

    LEVEL C: PHONEMIC AWARENESS

    BLENDING

    SOUND-TO-LETTER

    https://pals.virginia.edu/public/tools-1-3.html

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