Monday, July 21, 2008


Ask the Administrator: What Do Proprietaries Do?

A fellow blogger writes:

Recently, a for profit school opened in our area, and seeing it here, where there's a fairly good state university and a quite good state technical community college in the city, and several other colleges and universities in the area, makes me wonder about how they do their business.
I'm wondering what students would choose that school given the other options? 
Are they open enrollment? 
Do they offer classes the other local schools don't (in general) or classes at times other schools don't? 
Do they offer mostly on-line, or combo options?
If you have thoughts on how these schools fit into higher education, I'd be interested in learning.

I can't speak for all for-profits, but having worked at one for several years, I can offer a few thoughts. Readers with direct knowledge of for-profits are especially welcome to comment.

While different proprietaries have different specializations, what they tend to have in common is a strong career focus and a relatively clear niche. Although it's possible to transfer from a for-profit, depending on its accreditation (and yes, some of them are regionally accredited), that's really not their focus. They're all about job placement, without apology.

Their clear purpose and narrow curricular focus allows them the benefits of specialization. Under the older model, a student might go to learn auto repair and to get a job as a mechanic, maybe with the goal of opening his own garage. That school may or may not have much in the way of general education, but chances are its mechanics' bays are pretty good. Now it's likelier to be a computer lab or health care setting, but the same principle applies. When I was at Proprietary U, the state of its gen ed was uneven, but its computer labs were pretty impressive for the time.

As a full-time faculty member, I was struck at how openly the administration talked about retention as a financial matter. In the cc world, retention is usually discussed as a social justice issue, with a dollop of financial interest on the side. In the proprietaries, it's reversed. Yes, it's gratifying to see a previously-unemployable student graduate to a real job, but the point of the place was to make money. A retained student is a repeat customer, so retention was a business need.

That could play out in both good and bad ways. At its best, it led to some thoughtful discussions and innovations in the classroom and the curriculum. At its worst, it led to unsubtle pressure to inflate the lower grades. (There was never pressure to raise B's to A's; it was to raise F's to D's or preferably C's.)

Faculty life was worse there. The teaching calendar was twelve months, so there was no summer break. Curricular change happened so quickly that sometimes you'd have three different curricula for the same program running simultaneously. The turnover rate was striking.

The biggest difference on the student side, other than advertising, was the almost concierge-level service students were given from before they even enrolled. The ratio of Admissions staff to student body was higher by an order of magnitude than anything I've seen in the nonprofit world, and those folks worked their tails off to hit their numbers. Among other things, that meant handholding students as they worked out transportation arrangements, wrestled with financial aid paperwork, and even had awkward conversations with family. (I once had a student in my office tell me how sympathetic his admissions rep had been when they had long conversations about his divorce.) On the positive side, that meant that PU didn't have nearly the casualty rate to the FAFSA that most schools have. (I consider the FAFSA a crime against humanity.) On the negative side, it meant that students often came in with wildly unrealistic expectations to an even greater degree than in the cc world.

Enrollment standards were low, but not technically open; some people actually got referred to the local cc for remediation or ESL instruction. I don't know if that's still true. That said, though, the standard for escaping remediation was notably low, and that reflected a straightforward business decision that telling a prospect that he has to take courses that 'won't count' is no way to close the sale.

The productive lessons I think cc's can take from proprietaries are twofold: some degree of specialization can actually be a good thing, and some attention to the 'customer' experience of, say, applying for financial aid might be well-advised.

Wise and worldly readers who've dealt with proprietaries – what have you seen?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I'm admitting ignorance here, but what is FAFSA?
Free Application for Federal Student Aid -- standard form you star the whole financial aid process with.
I used to regulate proprietary institutions in my state. I was in charge of the Diploma/Certificate level, not the degree-granting level (think, not University of Phoenix). I found that many of the students were sold on the 9 or 12-month and out calendar. The sales (admissions) departments were very good at talking students into thinking that their school was better than a CC because they didn't have to take classes for 2 years. "At Proprietary Tech you take classes for 9 months and you go get a job. You'll be earning real money 15 months before someone who enrolls at a CC at the same time." For a lot of students, this made sense and justified paying 3, 4 or even 5 times what they would have paid at the CC.

They also tend to prey on those who don't have the self confidence to believe they can make it at a "real" college.
I've been working at proprietaries for 6 years now. Dean Dad gets it pretty well I think. The school I'm working for now offers a great deal more structure for the students than the local cc's do. We handle the scheduling, and electives are a foreign concept for us. Quite a few of our successful students crashed and burned at a cc and/or one of the local 4-year schools before they got to us.

We're not a bargain, but I think we do a decent job of filling our niche and serving our students.
I think a lot of students in CCs really want them to be like the proprietary vocational schools. They opt for the CCs because they're subsidized, i.e. cheaper.

It manifests itself in the "why do I have to take THIS class, it's BS. I'm never gonna use it." attitude. Because I taught classes that satisfied a humanities elective requirement, I battled a lot of that.

I do worry though, that cutting out all the courses not directly focused on a career application portends darkly for young people who are likely to finish high school with abysmally poor reading, math, and analytical skills.

I know that in the graphic design field, graduates of certificate and 2-year programs are just not competitive in that very tight market. CCs offer those students an advantage of transferability and sometimes even articulation agreements. I've had students who've finished at proprietary design programs have to start over from square one because their credits are non-transferable. They feel like they were misled by an unrealistic view of that field.

But, that said, a friend of mine is currently interviewing for a position to start up a 4-year design program at a traditionally 2-year proprietary school. There are also (as you mentioned) regional, and even national accrediting agencies for proprietary schools. I'm going to predict that in the future those schools will overcome any obstacles that can be directly linked to student job placement and the potential to transfer (when applicable) and thus also to word of mouth impact on recruitment. If they're successful in that, I think they'll go a long way in overcoming the stigma around for-profit schools, much as CCs have worked to battle some of the unfortunate stigmas around them.

I think that will be good to the extent that it's good for education to have diverse options. But, I also wish all education was free...
Our one experience with a proprietary school was not positive. The rugrat went to a nontraditional high school (not because she had problems at regular HS, but because alternative school had a fashion design program) that appeared to be the target of a local business tech college.

They very aggressively recruit students from this HS, telling them that they offer a student aid package that covers "everything," without mentioning that 90% of that package is student loans because the tuition is way up there.

The rugrat already knew where she wanted to go to college, so she told the reps she wasn't interested in their school and not to call her. Didn't stop them from calling her several times on her personal cell (and not once trying to contact her parent).

In fact, they seemed to be trying to get students to commit and sign off on things without any parent input. And yes, they are 18, but they are dependent students as far as financial aid is concerned, and if my income is going to be considered for financial aid, and I'm going to be expected to put $ toward her education, then I expect to be consulted throughout the process.
I got one of my teaching credentials from National University in California. How does it succeed in a city that has both a large (20,000 students) state university and a respectable private university (known for its teacher ed programs)?

a. It offers courses at times where students can still work. The state university did/does that poorly;
b. It allowed students to sign up for all their classes all at once. You knew when you would finish. No worries about getting classes.
c. Admission hoops were less strenuous.

The interesting thing is that I chose their program even though I was teaching linguistics/TESL courses in the other program.
I've worked for a proprietary for a decade, and seen many of the things Dean Dad references from his own experience.

I agree that they're all about job placement with no apologies, and my employer is no exception to that general rule. Retention is a key business driver, exactly because of the "repeat customer" perspective DD mentions.

Specialized curriculum is certainly another key selling point, but not without its downside. In some majors, our curriculum is so specialized that once students are 12-18 months into their studies, many of the courses in their major won't transfer to traditional schools because those schools have no equivalent course. Students who hit 12 months at FTE have a much higher graduation rate, largely because they'd have to do too much more work at another school, and those who aren't likely to graduate have dropped or flunked out.

The business-focused retention goals have led to some great ideas and some really lousy ones in terms of instructional design, instructional delivery, and integrated curriculum. There is subtle pressure to avoid having success rates (% of students earning C or better) far below institutional goals, and less-subtle pressure to accommodate students who miss class and blow deadlines.

Handholding is the norm from admissions, and faculty are encouraged to provide superior "customer service" to the students. Deans often have fostered that attitude among students (even moreso recently), viewing student complaints as problems with the faculty rather than with student perceptions.

Enrollment standards are non-existent, as students are no longer referred to the community colleges for ESL and significant remediation for fear they won't come back. The percentage of incoming students requiring remediation has grown more than five fold during my time here. By the time many students have completed remedial course work, they've burned through up to 20% of their federal student loan eligibility, placing that much more pressure on student finances if they ever make it to junior or senior status, or if they decide to transfer.
My only contact with our local proprietaries is indirect, in that my wife tells me local employers prefer our CC's computer artists over those from the proprietary college, but that is all due to one instructor.

But that last comment about burning through loans just to do remediation really got my attention. That is a place where NCLB has really failed our students (as have their families and their teachers and themselves). Our state's minimum HS graduation standard puts them about a year behind in math. That is, a "barely grad" needs two full semesters of remediation to get up to college level classes -- if they manage to pass on the first try. That is two full years of HS classes where they did not get their money's worth and now they are going into debt to make up for it! ?!

(But don't talk to me about vouchers, since I advise kids from private schools who don't take that HS grad test and also end up with the same placement at our CC.)
Thanks for your response(s) to my question!

I learned a lot.
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