Posted by: oldmedicine | June 9, 2010

The Profit Motive

I am a staunch believer that there is more to education than just the degree you earn at the end.  As we make our way through the proverbial jungle of medical school admissions, sometimes one forgets that the reason you are going to medical school is to not only learn the practice of medicine, but to meet, network, and be a part of a learning community that will be with you for the rest of your life.  It isn’t all about the degree – it’s about the people you meet and the relationships that you foster and keep through the years. When I look back to my days as an undergrad, the individual classes and labs run together – but I still keep in touch and am mentored by my professors and other leaders from my school, and regularly see my best friends, most of whom I met at school. That all being said, where are we going with education in the United States?  Anyone with a pulse and a facebook account knows that the newest model of education is the “for-profit online university.” The ads are everywhere on the interweb.

Frontline, the excellent PBS investigative series, recently did an expose on the for-profit school system.   The show was biased – you want to hate these schools for screwing people over.  Not to sound like a Republican, but I had the overwhelming sense that these people got what was coming to them.  Yes, most of the online for profit schools are quite shady, but the people who are signing up for them are extremely lacking in common sense.  I’m sorry that I have to say this, but here goes: if the populace wasn’t, on average, totally asinine, there would be absolutely no market for these for-profit, government loan sucking, toilet schools.   This, of course, is the point of for-profit schools – to give degrees to people who can’t get into normal colleges and universities (hat-tip to the mythical working single mother who is featured in most online school ads).

My favorite segment of the program is the lady who received her Ph.D in Psychology from some online/for-profit dump.  It was not regionally accredited.  She couldn’t get an internship, and thus cannot get a job in the field because she can’t get a license. She is totally screwed. And broke – her debt is in the low to mid HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS.

Now, of course, people like the lady above are suing because they feel like they wasted money on a worthless degree. This being America, these unfortunate souls will surely have their day in court. But aren’t the people who signed up for these programs equally complicit with the schools?  The customer was focused on “getting the degree” and the for-profit school is equally focused on giving them out, for a price.

“Get the degree” thinking is endemic in the United States – this is the reason toilets like Phoenix and Cappella University thrive. If people were focused on “getting an education” instead of getting a degree, there wouldn’t be a market for online for-profit schools and more people would be learning lucrative and high demand trades like plumbing, welding, and steelwork.  The world needs more skilled craftsmen, not more people with online degrees in Economics or Criminal Justice.

I could go on for days, but I’m not the arbiter of education. Some dude named Arne Duncan is, and I don’t want his job.  He seems to think that online schools are okay as long as they uphold some sort of standard. Personally, I’m skeptical. I think that education, and the debt people take on to finance it, is the next housing bubble.  But, in relation to the world of medicine, I can say that a degree from an online for-profit college will get you nowhere in medical school admissions. Why?

  1. Most for-profit, online schools do not have the facilities for a pre med student to take the required laboratories (Bio I and II, General Chem I and II, Physics I and II, Organic Chem I and II)
  2. Most for-profit, online schools are not regionally accredited – they are nationally accredited, which is not recognized by most post-grad institutions.
  3. 99.99% of people applying to medical school went to normal brick and mortar schools. A degree from Random University Online places you at a competitive disadvantage. (By the way, anyone who tells you that where you went to school doesn’t matter when it comes to med school admissions is wrong.  You can overcome going to a weak undergrad, but it definitely places you at a disadvantage.)
  4. Academics are snobs.  They HATE the very concept of for-profit schools. Trust me, I just spent the last 3 years teaching at a highly regarded school – this included time with the admissions committee. See point 3.
  5. Lets be practical, and go back to the point in the first paragraph – most online schools do not provide you with the opportunities that regular schools do.  Communicating with your classmates in an open chat room isn’t the same as getting together in the library or after hours in the lab to go over difficult concepts. You do not have access to professors who are active in research – in fact, many of your professors may not have the terminal degree in their field.  This all leads to a poorly prepared candidate for medical school. Med schools are not willing to give a poor candidate “a chance to prove themselves.”

So, you are the proverbial working single mother trying to make something of yourself in this world for your kids (PWSMTTMSOYITWFYK) that is a ripe candidate to “get a degree” and go on to medical school, and you think I’m a bastard for saying you can’t do it.  Well, PWSMTTMSOYITWFYK, I am not saying that at all. You certainly can make something of yourself, just do it at your local state university for a fraction of the cost of some online degree mill.  If you already have a degree, many schools offer night programs or let you take courses a la carte, at night.  Community colleges are a great option, and cheap.  I retook a chemistry class at my local community college and it was fantastic – great facilities and an instructor who actually had a Ph.D.

Finally, realize that education is a dynamic process, not just a shuffle toward “a degree.”  You actually need all the stuff that you are stuffing into your head during class.  You actually need to form relationships with your peers and instructors. You actually need to be in an environment where the focus is on knowledge, not on checking the boxes towards getting “that degree.”

Online, for-profit universities – avoid at all costs (which are high to begin with).


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