Aspen University and the financialization of STEM degrees

Should those of us in private non-profits and public universities care about for-profit computer science education?

For-profit postsecondary education is a sector speckled with dubious practices and outright fraud that has largely operated as a small player in the design and research areas of STEM education. On August 2nd, 2017, Aspen University, a company offering a 25 month Doctor of Science degree in Computer Science for $31,000 started trading publicly on the Nasdaq Capital Markets Exchange. Eighty percent of Aspen University’s students are enrolled in nursing programs with fewer than ten graduates in the “doctorate” in Computer Science (Aspen University, 2017 4th Quarter Earnings Call Transcript).

We need to watch this for-profit STEM doctorate. The 2-year, 1-month, for-profit degree de-emphasizes the independent research capacity typically associated with doctorate holders and may be a harbinger of a growing marginal tier of educational offerings in computational sciences. For-profit educators like now defunct Corinthian College have historically capitalized on the hopes of first generation students who are unaware that they could get a higher quality degree for less at their local state school or even private non-profits, depending on the student and degree.

One of Aspen University’s key priorities, according to their mission statement, is to offer “responsibly priced” degrees. The Doctorate of Science in Computer Science will set students back ~$31,000 with on-time graduation according to Aspen University’s website. The pricing model is marketed like a subscription — $375 per month— reducing sticker shock. Aspen University sounds eminently affordable. There are also fees listed on the website, but these are downplayed in most of the copy. Still, the relevant comparison is the cost of obtaining a doctorate elsewhere: FREE tuition and fees. This pricetag is widely known within academia, but most people who don’t have PhDs assume all students, including graduate students, pay tuition. Those of us who have doctorates need to remember that the virtual absence of tuition in most PhD programs is insider knowledge. In 2013, only 2 percent of US residents held a doctorate.

Attending Aspen University for a computer science doctorate will be more expensive than attending a state university or private non-profit. The major financial benefit associated with attending Aspen U is that students can plausibly work part-time and earn a Doctor of Sciencein 2 years and 1 month, far shorter than the full-time 4–5 year commitment required of those earning Doctor of Philosophy degrees at state schools and private non-profit universities. The drawbacks of graduating quickly are large: most employers who require a PhD in computer science are also going to expect to see the publication history and letters of recommendation from tenured research professors associated with the 4–5 year PhD. As at other for-profit institutions, when schools merely exchange classes for tuition dollars, they may not provide students with the meaningful apprenticeship and professional development required to get the type of job commensurate with holding a Doctor of Philosophy.

To be fair, not all for-profits are the same. General Assembly is a for-profit providing solid technology skills-building courses, physical classrooms and all the networking that comes with them, AND excellent professional development to their students. They don’t bother offering a doctorate because they aren’t trying to ape the university system. Their services are transparent and high quality. I have no problem with for-profit education in general, but I do have a problem with degrees that piggy-back on the reputation of higher education without delivering a high quality product at a fair price.

There are other reasons — besides overpricing and de-emphasizing research — to be skeptical about Aspen University.

For one thing, their name implies that they are based in Aspen, Colorado. In fact, they are based in Denver with an operations base in Phoenix, running on money from investors largely based in the New York City metropolitan region (two of the investors are Ear, Nose, and Throat doctors from New Jersey; another is a real estate developer, also from New Jersey; another lives near me in Brooklyn and also has an affiliation with NYU).

Secondly, and much more importantly, the holding company had no interest in education at its inception. It originally incorporated as “Hidden Ladder” in 2010 when it offered penny stocks on a regional exchange to raise money to develop a ladder that homeowners could affix to the wall in their bedrooms and dangle from the window to escape house fires. Hidden Ladder never gained traction with large retailers like Home Depot and Loews, dropped the effort, but kept the legal shell. In 2011, the CEO left and the company got a new name: Elite Nutritional Brands. Elite Nutritional Brands had a CEO who ran a print marketing company, but never announced a product. That idea was also dropped.

In 2012, the holding company became affiliated with Aspen University, which was originally accredited in 1993. A cohort of ~10 mostly New York area investors came in at $50,000 minimum buy-ins. The school enrolls students, offers degrees, and generates value for shareholders, trading at $6.02 per share ($ASPU). This is a huge leap from the initial penny stock valuation of the holding company. Revenues are projected to be up 100% in Q4 of 2017 compared to Q4 of 2016. Financializing education is a move that will have consequences for the entire educational sector, not only for-profit schools, governments whose grants back them, and the students they serve.

With employers demanding STEM educated students faster than universities can prepare them or the Department of State can grant them visas, there are clear financial rewards available to for-profit schools that move into the computer science degree space. Some of the programs are excellent and fill gaps in the burgeoning demand that mainstream public and private non-profit schools are unable to scale up fast enough to meet. Some are weak. Unless we are careful, aspiring students will be fleeced and employers will still be facing a thin labor market, now with dubious degrees they’ll need to sort through. I trust many companies to do this, but not all. Companies that are not in tech and do not require technical interviews nevertheless hire programmers and engineers who go on to build the products we all use. These products could malfunction, they could be more susceptible to malware as Bruce Schneier has pointed out (cybersecurity is often not a top priority), they could be buggy and annoying, and they could be more susceptible to data breaches which put our personal information at risk.

Existing computer science programs in state schools and private for-profits must offer more degrees to a wider range of students. We need to expand to keep pace with the demand from students and employers alike or we will be partly culpable for marginal offerings. One thing that no educators like to admit is that we may have to market in order to reach underserved students who are out of our typical reach. We need to reach out to would-be tech workers who are not 18–24 years old and offer classes after work when they can attend. We need to reach out to lower income communities where people may not feel they can afford college.

Part of this problem is a classic information assymetry between students who — by definition! they are students looking for education — do not have the wealth of information available to institutions whose reason for being revolves around selling them degrees. Many of my colleagues feel that marketing is a waste of money, an activity with no redeemable value, but I hope we can begin to think differently. The students we miss when we refuse to full-stack outreach programs are most likely the first generation in their family to get PhDs.

It is a falsehood to think we can keep science “pure”, apolitical, and free from the financialization engulfing one industrial sector after the next. When financialization engulfs education we will be imperiling the very playing field we rely upon for launching all subsequent careers.

With the great privilege of being professors with voices in the knowledge production class, we have a great responsibility to reduce information asymmetries and empower our students and would-be students to succeed in technology jobs. They will build the future we all inhabit. Let’s do our part to make sure that future has space to test the full range of good ideas bubbling up out of our astoundingly rich and diverse collection of minds and experiences.

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