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Meet Randy Best, the Dallas Entrepreneur Cashing in On Online Higher Ed

Randy Best found his way into the pages of the Observer in the mid-'90s, when a company he founded, Voyager Expanded Learning Inc., landed some plum DISD contracts and, just after he left the district, Superintendent Chad Woolery. He gained national attention a decade later when he was criticized for buddying up with George W. Bush and cashing in on No Child Left Behind.

In the Texas Observer yesterday, Patrick Michels catches us up on what Best has been up to since then, which is trying to do with higher education what he did for K-12: make a profit.

Best formed Higher Ed Holdings after Lamar University, his alma mater, was hit by Hurricane Rita. Rather than simply donate cash to help the school rebuild, he convinced the administration to use the disruption as an opportunity to focus on its online offerings. Things moved forward from there.

In the past five years, the company has expanded to 24 public colleges and universities, including eight in Texas. The institutions have combined to pay Best's company at least $105 million in that time, according to university payment records. On the way to winning a contract with the University of Texas System last summer, Academic Partnerships reported 166 employees and annual revenues of $43 million.

Best contends that his model of online education benefits everyone. The schools win because enrollment spikes, bringing in more state funding -- often as much as for students attending class on campus, even though online students cost less to educate. Students win because they can earn higher salaries with their degrees, which are cheaper and more convenient to earn online. "Partner" corporations such as hospitals and school districts often subsidize or cover their employees' tuition and benefit from a better-educated workforce. Look at it this way, and it's hard to see who loses.

Unless, of course, you're one of the people, like some of the faculty of UNT-Dallas, who object to dismantling a traditional model of higher education. Or maybe your worried that someone like Best is pulling political strings to help land contracts. Then again, maybe that's just the definition of a good businessman.

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That's really neither here nor there. There will be an inevitable shift toward online learning at all levels of education, and there will be people like Best who will ease the transition. So it's worth giving Michels' piece a read.

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