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.