Monday, July 11, 2016

Ask the Administrator: Making the Leap from a For-Profit

A new correspondent writes:

I've had a variety of roles in the higher education (for-profit) sector, and for the last eighteen months I've been trying to advance my career into an assistant or associate dean role. Without a PhD, I'm more focused on administrative and operations positions than strictly academic.

Do you have any advice to provide? Sometimes I suspect that community colleges and private schools reject my resume because of my current employer, though I have such great, diverse skills, and go out of my way to prove it in my cover letters.

First, I think you’re making the right call.  For-profits right now are in a nasty tailspin.  And having escaped the sector myself, I can attest that it can be done.  That said, I did it back in 2003, before their reputations were quite as toxic as they are now.

I’d start by taking a close look at your own skills and trying to figure out the role in which you could contribute most directly.  “Administrative and operations” positions could include anything from finance or budget to HR to facilities.  Some people would even put institutional research there.  

For-profits often use titles differently than the rest of the industry, so the burden on you would be to figure out how to translate what you do (and have done) into language that community colleges would recognize.  Then, you may need to be willing to start one notch lower.  Think of it as the reputation tax.  Walking into a community college from a for-profit, some will wonder about you.  You may need some time to prove yourself.

If you have the option, I’d recommend attending a conference or two of community colleges, and just listening.  The League for Innovation and the AACC are the big ones, but regional ones can work, too.  Just try to get a sense of common issues, and the lingo being used.  

When you make the crossover, be prepared for a serious case of culture shock.

For-profits are corporations.  They operate largely on a corporate model, which assumes employment-at-will and relatively fast turnover.  Most community colleges -- even the ones without tenure systems -- don’t operate like that.  When you replace a centrally directed command-and-control model with a decentralized model based on long-term employment and shared governance, you’ll notice changes in everything from daily operations to what gets valued.  Each model has its merits, but the common sense of one is heresy in the other.

The good news for you -- perversely enough -- is that years of forced austerity have compelled most community colleges to focus even more on operational efficiencies than they already did.  And the completion agenda has prioritized data-driven decision-making in ways that veterans of the for-profit sector would recognize, even if the pace is different.  If your expertise is in, say, outcomes assessment, you may find real demand for your services.  

Depending on location, lacking a doctorate may or may not matter.  In many locations, it’s not weird to see academic deans with master’s degrees.  CAO’s and presidents almost always need doctorates, but that doesn’t mean everyone else does.  That said, coming up on the academic side requires teaching experience, and usually full-time teaching experience.  

The bad news is that years of forced austerity have reduced hiring.  But if you’re willing to move, you might be a strong candidate somewhere.  Just be prepared, in your interviews, to address not only why you’re leaving the for-profit, but why you’d want to be in the specific new place.  “Port in a storm” is not a winning argument.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, any advice you could offer?  I’m guessing that the stream of refugees from for-profits that are either circling the drain or already gone won’t subside anytime soon.

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