Tierney, W. and Hentschke, G. (2007) New Players, Different Game: Understanding the Rise of For-Profit Colleges and Universities Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 215 pp.

Reviewed by Tony Bates

This excellent, carefully researched, and well-balanced book by two education professors from the University of Southern California is primarily focused on the issues arising from the growth of the for-profit post-secondary education sector in the USA. However, it also has some interesting things to say about the adoption of technologies for teaching in both traditional, campus universities (TCUs), as well as the for-profit colleges and universities (FPCUs).

The book provides a comprehensive review of the growth of FCPUs in recent years, and compares and contrasts FPCUs with TCUs on a number of dimensions, including mission, finance and governance, student profiles, faculty roles, success factors, organisational cultures, and the future of both FCPUs and TCUs.

What particularly caught my attention was their discussion of the relationship between educational innovation and the rise of the FCPUs. They link Christensen’s  (1997) analysis of ‘disruptive technologies’ to the impact of learning technologies on post-secondary education. The authors argue that online distance education is growing much faster in FCPUs than in TCUs. TCUs , being mature, established organisations, have incorporated technology to improve but not to change radically their standard operations (including teaching), whereas (some) FCPUs are using technology for radical change, in the form of ‘new products and services generating new demands from new consumers’ (the University of Phoenix Online is a classic example). Indeed, this book provides one of the clearest and most compelling arguments explaining why in general the adoption of technology in traditional colleges and universities has been so slow and led to so little fundamental change in the delivery of teaching and learning.

As someone who has spent most of his working life trying to encourage the appropriate use of technology in universities and colleges, this insight came as something of a shock. Is it really impossible to bring about radical change in traditional teaching universities through the use of technology? I believe strongly that TCUs are not meeting critical needs of learners in a knowledge-based society, particularly for learners in the workforce, and in developing students’ skills for knowledge-based work, and that e-learning can play a critical role in meeting these needs. However, maybe these ‘job competencies’ and learner markets are not seen as part of the role of traditional universities, and should be handed over to the for profit sector. If so, I think this would be a dangerous strategy for TCUs. These new markets can provide much needed alternative sources of revenue for TCUs. More importantly the goals of lifelong learning, and of developing appropriate skills and competencies for the knowledge society, are strongly supported by government, potential students, and employers.

Although the case is made that FCPEs serve needs not currently well served by TCUs,  it would be misleading to suggest that the authors believe that for-profits will replace traditional post-secondary institutions. Indeed, they argue that in many areas (including the use of technology) there is likely to be increasing convergence and overlap of roles, functions and practices. Maybe the growing success of FPCUs will force greater adaptation and change on TCUs, and thus lead to technology being used more effectively in these institutions – and maybe not!

In summary, I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in the ‘big’ picture of where technology ‘fits’ in teaching and learning in universities and colleges, as well as to those who want to be well informed about the the private higher education sector in the USA.


Christensen, C. (1997) The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Companies to Fail Boston: Harvard Graduate Business School Press


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