Yesterday I was poking around in the IPEDS database and ran a search for the total number of master’s degrees in education conferred, by college. The top three were Walden University, The University of Phoenix – Online, and Grand Canyon University, all of which are for-profit and operate primarily online. In total, they conferred 12,509 master’s degrees in education in 2009.
There are two ways to think about this. On the one hand, a great number of master’s degrees in education are earned by women who have families and full-time teaching jobs. Union contracts and state laws require them to get a master’s degree in order to make more money. There are many ways to design rich, productive online learning environments. So it’s a boon for people to be able to pursue graduate training in their field without having to schlep off to the local public university in the evening while somebody else takes care of their kids. Online education can be more flexible, adaptive and personalized.
On the other hand, research suggests little or no relationship between having a master’s degree and being a more effective teacher. Teachers get them because they have to, not because they want to. Master’s degrees in education are high-volume commodity credentials and so it’s unsurprising that for-profit companies have aggressively moved into a market where standardized curricula + economies of scale + federal student aid = gigantic profits. Top executives at publicly-traded for-profit colleges made $2 billion selling stock over the last seven years. There must be better ways to spend all that time and money on behalf of K-12 schoolchildren.
Which of the two perspectives has more legitimacy depends in large part on whether the degrees in question are any good. And as with so many things in higher learning, we don’t have enough fine-grained information about the quality of the education being provided. If Grand Canyon’s online education master’s degrees are of very high quality then it’s fantastic that information technology is providing these new opportunities and ways of working. If not, then it’s a scam of massive proportions. Federal policy can help, but in the long run colleges themselves have to embrace the challenge of measuring quality in a public, comparable way. When demonstrable quality doesn’t sit at the center of the enterprise, other forces take hold.