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Education: It's time we forget about Non-"Profit's" and For-"Profits", and turn our focus to implementing For-"Value"

Education is big business yet it's no secret our educational system is grossly in need of reform, yet we can't seem to find a model that meets and reflects the current needs and trends of today's society.

We focus on 'non-profits' and 'for-profits', engaged in debating the different pros and cons each offers, which ultimately just continues to pit the two against each other while keeping them at different ends of the same spectrum. 

But let's be real for a second - all colleges/universities are in the business of wanting to make a profit. The packed stadium on game day does a lot more than simply generate school spirit.

We need to shift our focus to merging the most desirable traits into an educational culture that is more concerned about adding value (and producing graduates) which ultimately will scale. Instead of focusing on revenue and the number of incoming students, or tradition and reputation let's instead turn our attention to instilling value for all parties involved - students, facility, administrators, the community and improving the local economy. If that is done properly, for an extended period of time, other prospective students/high school graduates/ customers/clients (the terms are interchangeable) will hear about the value being offered at a particular institution and will want to be a part of that culture - or at the very least inquire to learn more about ‘that’ school everyone seems to be talking about.

Let me start by saying that I believe there is already a lot of value in the approach and methods ‘for-profits’ utilize in their particular education models. (I am also only referring institutions that offer accredited programs which are recognized by employers, and comply with all federal and state requirements).  This business model approach towards education involves investing a great deal of money and resources up-front which are not available to the more traditional counterpart intuitions’.

The ’for-profits’ utilize a top-down business approach in order to scale in each specific location. From the initial research of determining an ideal local and matching the most desirable programs to offer in order to produce the most marketable graduate to best meet the short and long term needs of the local community and its economy. Research answers the questions -Which jobs/professions are currently highest in demand in the area? What about in 5 and 10 years from now?  Which programs at the other local institutions currently have waiting lists of students hoping to be admitted? What are the nationally desirable curriculum's that no other competitive school currently offers? In systematically determining the desired demographic they are catering too, a targeted marketing campaign is then launched to reach those specific potential students.

There is something about this business approach to education tends to leave a bad taste in the general public's mouth. Institutions utilizing this method struggle to gain acceptance and the respect they feel they should have earned by now. There appears to be a lack of understanding as to why public acceptance remains elusive and continuously slips out of their grasp.

Take for example the article published on Slate.com regarding the growth and relative success Southern New Hampshire University has experienced over the past few years by implementing some of the best operational practices perfected by the ‘for-profits’. http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2014/01/southern_new_hampshire_university_how_paul_leblanc_s_tiny_school_has_become.html

Overall, the article is a rather subjective one- touching on how the current President of SNHU, Paul LeBlanc, has implemented certain ‘for-profit’ practices (and the perceived pros and cons of said methods) to significantly increase enrollment numbers for the current student body, specifically the on-line portion of the school. What I found extremely interesting is the response LeBlanc felt compelled to write, entitled, “Setting The Record Straight Again (Sigh).” http://blogging.snhu.edu/leblanc/index.php/2014/01/setting-the-record-straight-again-sigh/

Now, I have no idea what communication took place between the President and author of the Slate piece prior to the article being published, or what implicit or explicit expectations were set as to what the content of the article would entail. Though there was obviously some kind of exchange between the two since LeBlanc felt as though certain information was portrayed casting him/SNHU in an unflattering light. Although, what he complains about in his response appears to not be far off from what was actually reported in the Slate article, which as a reader I found myself having a tough time following if he was referring to what he believed should have been reported versus the actual article. My confusion lead to my interest, and got me thinking “Why?”

The President “doth protest too much”. But why is he so upset? Why does he feel the need to defend his position- when that position (or his institution) wasn’t really attacked in the first place?

My personal belief is that he’s not totally sure why himself. Or that he sees the value SNHU's brick and mortar campus provides to its 3,000 students on a daily basis. I’m sure he personally interacts with students and faculty, addressing issues and problems- but his main ‘take-away’ is a strong sense of pride in cultivating and working in an environment where he sees lives being changed and futures being built on a daily basis. And he should take a lot of pride in that, it’s a wonderful thing. But the business model educational approach struggles scaling in the middle (percentage of students who drop out and retention rates), and more importantly, it has yet to consistently deliver on the back end (low graduation rates).

Money has been spent, research conducted and best policies implement to try and ‘catch’ students who are struggling before they decide to drop out of school. These practices do help but I’m willing to bet the numbers still don’t add up. Or for the number of incoming students who start each quarter/semester the drop rate is still higher then all data suggests it should be. And he doesn't understand why since he witnesses on a daily basis the value his institution provides. What do the ‘for-profits’ do to address or fix this problem- they focus on uping the numbers on the front end. The more students you enroll to start class the more will graduate, or so the theory goes.

If I were LeBlanc I would start by looking at my 160 admissions officers – though he might have to travel in order to do so, since I’m willing to bet 160 employees are not working at SNHU’s brick and mortar campus.

The systematical, numbers focused, metric driven standard admissions processed which has been perfected by the ‘for-profits’ is in my opinion, flawed (obviously). For one second let’s forget about the big business model and strip away all the imperial evidence based on the research, marketing and ‘hard’ data and remember that we’re talking about real life people here. People, who for whatever reason had the guts enough, to at least momentarily ‘pick themselves’- or pick up the phone to make a call or submit an on-line inquiry.  As long as those calls are funneled to a call center (or sometimes an office at an actual campus) and if the person who answers that phone call has a personal stake, or gains financially, by ensuring that ‘lead’/customer/client/potential student is enrolled in classes on the first day of the next quarter- then we will continuously have problems with retention, and therefore graduation rates. Would you trust a company that made false promises or set inaccurate expectations?

 

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As an educational consultant I would propose:

To combine the current top-down, systematically orchestrated, big-business approach used by many non-traditional institutions with a hands-on, bottom-up approach focused on adding value and student success – from the first encounter with the prospective student all the way up (and through) graduation day.

How to accomplish this:

Admissions personnel working for 'for-profts' use to be commissioned based in the sense that the representative would guaranteed the number of students he/she would be responsible for enrolling and his/her salary would be based on that number - and that salary was locked in for two years (at least in the model of which I am most familiar). If he/she enrolled more students then their guarantee then after the two years they would get a salary increase, but if they were not able to meet their guarantee, it ment a salary decrease (if they still had a job). At some point it became aparant that practice was not good for the students so it is now illegal for education representitives to have a commissioned based salary. So the tactics switched... a little. Siting my own experience as an expamle- I was hired fresh out of college (with zero experience, mind you) with a starting salary of $42,000 which included two weeks paid vacation, plenty of sick time and some personal time thrown in there as well. I should also mention that this was not some metropolitan area with a high cost of living, but down in Southern Virginia. Oh, and come every Janurary I got a 6% raise- 6% may not sound like a lot - but that's extremely high for not having to do anything other than not get fired. 

The reason this is worth mentioning is because it breeds a certain culture - one where preformance and results are valued above all else. Which in theory sounds like a good thing, but when you reward top preformers with perks (like more leads/clients/customers/student inquiries) a devide is created where those preforming highly are given a greater chance of continuing to do so, and their counterparts who are not preforming as highly are now in the position where they have a less then fair shot of even attempting to level the playing field (for the record, there were times I was the top preformer but there were also times I found myself bringing up the rear). And this matters because when someone is struggling, or thinks their income (aka livelihood) is in jepordary they might be tempted to act in a way they otherwise wouldn't in order to secure that. By no means are these 'bad people', but the culture culivated by rewarding top preformers and thereby 'punishing' their less sucessful counterparts should have no part in our current education system - especially when these people are entrusted to give sound advice and set realistic expectations about taking a class online versus in the classroom, or explaining the financial aid system (and no, regarless of what anyone tells you, there is no 'free money' that's just sitting there ready for the taking).

Instead we need to develop a culture based more on security/stability or maybe offer incentives based on the number of students an admissions representitive enrolls that also graduated. What can be done today to ensure we reach our goal a few years from now? That's a tall order, but the focus needs to switch from how many students can start class next week to how many of those students will be there to walk across the stage and pick up their diploma come graduation day.  

Hire admissions representatives who work directly at the campus. When a client or customer inquires about your product the person they talk to in the initial phone call is the representative they meet with if they choose to come to the campus to learn more about the programs being offered. Face-to-face interaction increases accountability.

Embrace a culture of transparency. The more people understand the more they trust. People fear what they don't know or understand, though the average person isn't stupid. There is nothing that needs to be kept secret or is scary about enrolling in school. Teach your admissions team to use terms and phrases most people understand - sounding like an expert doesn't mean much if people aren't buying what you sell.

Take the time to train your admissions personal. They have to know how to talk to people and discover the needs and values of the customer, but also make them local educational experts. They should know the in’s and out’s of every other local institution (the competition) from programs offered, length of said programs, delivery methods (online vs classroom), start dates, admissions requirements, etc. That leads to a clearer understanding if the programs your school offers really are the best fit for what the prospective student is looking for...which simply increases the likelihood of long term success and also develops trust.

And trust leads to relationships and word of mouth recommendations- and a personal recommendation is priceless. Or worth its weight in gold considering it almost always guarantees you a new student.   

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