Tuesday, May 06, 2014

 

Competing with For-Profits


The news of SNHU’s College for America getting approval to offer bachelor’s degrees got me thinking.

What would happen if community colleges were to take as an explicit goal competing with for-profits?

We already do, in many ways, but it’s mostly incidental.  We happen to go after some of the same populations, and offer some of the same programs.  But it hasn’t been a distinct purpose.

I could see a strong public policy justification for doing it.  As a group, for-profits saddle students with far more debt than public colleges (and particularly community colleges) do. While quality within each sector varies, many for-profits are not regionally accredited, so their credits mostly don’t transfer.  (A few large ones, such as Phoenix and DeVry, are regionally accredited.)  To the extent that many for-profits leave students worse off than they found them, I can see a public good being served by making a more aggressive effort to provide a visible public alternative.

Of course, there’s also an easily imagined ideological objection.  Why should the government sponsor competition with private enterprise?  I’d find that objection much more compelling if the private enterprise in question weren’t almost entirely dependent on government-sponsored financial aid.

More to the point, though, what would a frontal competitive assault on for-profits look like?

Before we do anything else, we’d have to look seriously at what makes for-profits successful.  (In politics, they call it “opposition research.”)  They’re quite good at certain things; if they weren’t, they’d go out of business.  For example:

- They understand the salience of short-term barriers to applying.  As Tressie McMillan Cottom has pointed out, to a student who’s really up against it economically, a twenty thousand dollar student loan due years in the future might as well be monopoly money, but a fifty dollar application fee is a real barrier.  Admissions counselors in for-profits will go out of their way to track down transcripts, for example, to give expedited decisions on transfer credits, which tend to be generous.  (They understand the concept of a “loss leader.”)  

- They provide concierge-level service in areas like financial aid and admissions.  When I was at DeVry, the local on-campus enrollment peaked at about 4,000.  (This was around 1999-2000.)  It had an admissions staff of probably fifteen to twenty.  When I went to CCM, it had double the enrollment, with less than half the admissions staff.  To a prospective student who’s on the fence, the difference between being actively courted and being left alone may be enough to tip a balance.

- They advertise specific programs.  For reasons I’ve never entirely understood, public colleges tend not to do that.  They tend to focus on the overall brand, leaving it to the prospective student to find out whether a given college teaches, say, HVAC.  Most for-profits offer a much narrower range of majors than most community colleges do, by design.  That narrow range offers a clear and easily explained identity.  A college with a hundred majors, that doesn’t specifically advertise any of them, comes across as more of a black box.  

That doesn’t matter for students who already know what’s there, whether through family connections, friends, or just a general sense of higher ed.  But for students who don’t have those connections or contexts, it makes a difference.  

- They barely do remediation, if they do it at all.  They understand its impact on student retention and success.  Remember, from a business perspective, a retained student is a repeat customer.  And it’s much cheaper to retain a customer than to attract a new one.

It’s possible for non-profits to learn from these.  SNHU’s College for America, for example, is doing a spectacular job of offering a non-profit alternative by actually working with large employers to become the in-house education option.  It has a narrow range of majors, a low upfront cost, a built-in support system, and regional accreditation.  Now, it’s even offering bachelor’s degrees.  (It also has a competency-based model, helping it get around Baumol’s cost disease.)  I’m consistently impressed by what CfA is doing, and I hope that community colleges can learn from it.  It’s possible to build an effective, ethical competitor that meets the same needs as for-profits, but for a higher purpose.  In our own way, we could do something similar.

Culturally, we don’t have a history of taking on specific competitors.  But the world is changing.  I’m thinking it may be time that we address the competition head-on.  

Comments:
You make excellent points, but I wonder whether the real push-back would come from compass-direction state universities. If community colleges start offering bachelors degrees at much lower costs than those at four-year state schools, I would expect that legislators would begin asking some hard questions about why that should be the case. While the response *could* be to increase cc funding to match those of the state schools, I think we all know what would be much more likely to happen.
 
I would try this with grant funding to support select programs that have been picked up by for profits because of increased cost. I would sell that to granting agencies as a technology program for minorities or other underserved groups. I would also try to get the grant to fund changes to the fundamental organization of systems that will benefit the whole college (for example, I would streamline financial aid processes for your selected students in a way that eliminated inefficiencies for all students - through better software or some other "infrastructure" change that won't die with the grant). I would also invest in select adjuncts (or tt faculty) who are willing to take on more night and weekend classes and create "tracks" that working people can access and use for accelerated completion of degrees. Sometimes choice is paralyzing. This would force you to commit to a schedule over time and that might be hard but it’s what these folks need to get through quickly and achieve their goals. I would try to set up child care for on-campus night classes in collaboration with the early childhood education faculty and the local workforce investment board. I would invite food trucks to come to campus after hours to feed the students who are attending classes there – if you have a hospitality management program, I would have those students participate in providing some sort of food and refreshments for night students.

This is all doable if you have people who are willing to make the kinds of changes that working people would need. I’m not sure if a unionized environment would allow this kind of transformational change. You would have to have really good relationships with staff and you would have to get their ideas on what to change.
 
You comment about advertising really resonated with me. Local for-profit (and some private non-profit) colleges always feature a particular program. Our advertisements are generic, with quick-cut shots of students and classrooms that could be anywhere. Of course, unlike some random culinary or technology school, our nursing program doesn't need any more applicants, but why not showcase it and a few other or our top programs?

Ivory's suggestion also caught my eye because we already have entire night sequences taught by f-t t-t faculty. Do we advertise this specific program? No.

And do we advertise at the end of fall semester "Did you fail because you couldn't understand your math professor? Transfer to ... ".
 
The local community college advertises itself with the slogan something like "guaranteed transfer to [my R1 university]!" Transfer is only guaranteed if your grades are good enough, but it is guaranteed if you hit that point--so I don't know that the CC needs to offer a BA at this point. They do not advertise specific programs, even though the buses and billboards are all tarted up with pictures of minorities implying they got their job in healthcare/media production/education because of Herzing or Globe or Upper Iowa or Concordia or Whathave U. I have no idea if those ads work, but they are certainly targeting students not planning to use the CC as a way into a four-year university.
 
Who's paying for it?
 
I'll add to something Dean Dad's point about "concierge-level service." I imagine making that investment would be costly (whether it's prohibitively costly, I don't know), but I also imagine there are some things that can be done with little or no cost (keeping in mind that I'm not an administrator and seemingly "costless" initiatives could have costs I'm unaware of).

I work in a university library, and I think I and my fellow employees, for example, could do a better job at respecting our students, treating them as customers whose patronage is appreciated rather than annoyances. If a student has trouble finding a certain item, for example, it often doesn't hurt to walk with him or her to the appropriate part of the library instead of saying, for example, "oh, that's in microfilms...just go there." Also, some of the things we do are clueless.

Another example: During finals week one semester, I and my colleagues had a small work-related meeting in one of the computer labs in the library. And we had to kick out the students who were there (and probably working on school and finals-related stuff) in order to have our meeting. Maybe the meeting could have been scheduled at a less critical time?

Treating students as customers does not necessarily mean we have to tolerate noisiness or violations of quiet-zones, nor does it mean that reference people have to do all the research for undergrads struggling to write a paper. But it can mean something like simple respect. I'm pleased to say that despite a few counterexamples, I think my own fellow librarians do a pretty good job at this. But we can also do better.


 
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