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Thursday, September 05, 2019 1:00 am

A telling analogy

Purdue Global's comparison to Amazon highlights profit motive of online push

Steven Alan Carr, Bill V. Mullen and Dave Nalbone

Steven Alan Carr, top left, is professor of communication and president of the Purdue Fort Wayne AAUP chapter. Bill V. Mullen, top right, is professor of American studies and vice-president of Purdue West Lafayette AAUP chapter. Dave Nalbone is professor of psychology at Purdue Northwest and president of Indiana Conference of the AAUP.

Purdue University's treasurer and chief financial officer, William Sullivan, in a May 12 Journal Gazette column compared Purdue Global – newly rebranded from Kaplan Higher Education – to sales giant Amazon. Spending “significantly less on the cost of instruction than Purdue's brick-and-mortar campuses,” Sullivan argued, revolutionizes higher education instead of shortchanging students.

Sullivan noted how iTunes and Pandora cost less to operate than the local record store. You don't purchase undergraduate degrees in jewel cases, though, and transcripts aren't just playlists for your favorite course downloads.

Purdue's comparison to Amazon nonetheless reveals something. The one-time online bookseller set off alarms for its rapid rise to corporate behemoth, gobbling up unregulated market share yielding both many buyers, and very little competition from other sellers. Amazon may cost less to operate than a brick-and-mortar store, but it aims to put your favorite local book or record store out of business.

Purdue asserts that Global serves different populations from traditional students. Its long game, whether it cares to admit it, will knock out or significantly diminish competition. That may include its own regional campuses.

Just as Amazon uses predatory pricing to take over competitors or push them out of existence, Purdue Global can afford to lose millions of dollars, yet duplicates degrees already offered online at the regionals. Purdue Global and Purdue University Northwest offer online master's degrees in nursing. Purdue Fort Wayne offers a fully online bachelor of arts degree in general studies. Purdue Global offers an online bachelor of science in liberal studies.

Purdue Global has begun submitting general education classes to a statewide core transfer library, mostly first- and second-year courses that Indiana campuses must legally accept as meeting equivalent requirements for transfer students. If students take these classes online, they risk losing vital on-campus experiences preparing them for the demands of upper-level coursework. So much for targeting a different population.

In Amazon-like fashion, Purdue has contracted Kaplan to design an appealing portal for all campuses offering online programs. Prospective students can choose from hundreds of offerings. Purdue Global appears first and prominently by default, but with additional effort, students get to choose another campus.

This presumption of illusory choice underlies the same threat Amazon poses. Treating higher education like so much inventory, Purdue still dictates the mode of education and crowds out other alternatives serving the public good. Brick-and-mortar education may cost more, but it delivers more. Traditional academic institutions make vital contributions to the cultural, economic and social well-being of the region. One easily can take those contributions for granted. Until they're gone.

Purdue Global could coexist alongside traditional institutions. Unfortunately, Purdue has sunk startup funds into a folly that has lost $38 million in its first year. Many already have declared for-profit online higher education a failed business model, with dozens of institutions closing their virtual doors. A recent Brookings Institution report noted that online for-profits promised students “hopes of improved financial stability.” Instead, those students met “head on with disappointing labor market outcomes and unsustainable levels of student debt.”

Purdue claims its net operating loss has nothing to do with its support for regional campuses. Yet when Purdue University planned taking over the Fort Wayne campus in 2016, campus administration offered up small humanities programs such as French, German, philosophy, women's studies and others for elimination as a cost-cutting measure.

These programs contributed to the area's cultural and intellectual life. Even as the rebranded Purdue University Fort Wayne continued to teach out students in eliminated programs, the regional somehow managed a net gain of $7 million, according to financial data Purdue itself provided to the federal government.

You won't find any of Fort Wayne's eliminated programs offered at Purdue Global. But Amazon gladly will sell you textbooks online for classes in programs that no longer exist.

Purdue's main and regional campuses put students first, offering them a quality and world-class education. Purdue Global puts profits before people, and the comparison to Amazon admits as much.