Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Do I Need a Doctorate to Make the Leap?

A self-identified Gen X correspondent writes

I am currently at a somewhat senior level in finance at one of the largest proprietary schools. While I am very happy in my job right now, I anticipate that someday I will need to change organizations in order to move forward. My work history includes everything up to director level at a not-for-profit (ivy league in fact), but I have only a Master's degree. I have completed all my coursework for a PhD but still need to write my dissertation. As you know, in the world of proprietaries the PhD doesn't make much difference outside of the academic leadership (deans, provosts, etc). Administration beyond that tends to brag about their MBAs. My question is this: What challenges will I face moving from a proprietary back to a not-for-profit at some point, and will completing my dissertation be helpful for that eventual move? Will my experience be sufficient, or will the PhD be what convinces traditional higher ed to accept me back?

Having made a similar leap myself, though on the academic side, I'd venture to say that the doctorate itself will be less important than the shift of perspectives.

The economics of the non-profits are different, and not just in the obvious way. Hitting profit goals is hard, so I can imagine thinking that being liberated from that would make life easier. But that issue is replaced by others. What do we think next year's state/local funding will be? When you lose money on your core operations by design -- that's the business model of public higher ed -- how do you expand? In some states, public higher ed brings with it union contracts, which are both good and bad, but which -- in my observation, anyway -- are completely absent from the proprietaries.

(Which brings up an idea. I know that some of my wise and worldly readers are academic union activists. If the trend of things is towards the for-profits, how about unionizing the for-profits? An AAUP chapter at the University of Phoenix, say, is a fascinating thought exercise, and likely to be far more productive than just rolling your eyes at the one rapidly-growing sector of higher ed. I'm just sayin'.)

In the world of public higher ed, you'd have to deal with a level of public scrutiny that goes far beyond anything you've had in a for-profit. A finance vp at a community college is closer to a town manager than to a CFO of a business. In this setting, you have to take for granted that some parts of the operation will never pay for themselves, and you have to decide how much you're willing to lose on what. Although some of those decisions will be financial or technical, many of them will reflect a sense of priorities, which inevitably pits various abstractions against each other. To make matters more challenging, in this setting you can't just make the call and execute it; you have to have a general consensus of interested parties, or they'll foot-drag (or worse) you into oblivion.

You'll also have to deal with categories of funding unknown in the for-profits. I'm thinking here of grants, philanthropy, and state-level capital funding. Each of those brings its own unique set of rules, and you'll get to learn terms like "matching requirements" and "in-kind contributions." Construction in the public sector is a completely different animal than in the private sector; if you haven't had the pleasure, count yourself lucky.

In terms of moving up, I haven't seen too many finance vp's with doctorates. I'm sure they exist, but I haven't seen them. Gaining public sector experience, or some systematic exposure to it, would mean more.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- your thoughts?

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