How to compete with for-profit colleges

Community colleges should look at “what makes for-profits successful” in order to compete for students, writes Matt Reed, who worked in the for-profit sector before going to a community college.

To start with, for-profit colleges make it easy to apply.

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 he worked at DeVry, the campus had 15 to 20 admissions staffers for 4,000 students.  When he went to a community college, it had double the enrollment, with less than half the admissions staff.

For-profit colleges advertise specific programs, while community colleges tend to focus on the “overall brand.” The student has to figure out if a given community college trains HVAC techs or not.

For-profit colleges do little or no remediation before letting students start a program. They work to keep students in the program. “It’s much cheaper to retain a customer than to attract a new one.”

Community colleges also can learn from Southern New Hampshire University’s non-profit College for America, which will now offer bachelor’s degrees, Reed writes. College for America works with large employers to become the in-house higher education option for their workers.  “It has a narrow range of majors, a low upfront cost, a built-in support system, and regional accreditation.” Using a competency model keeps costs down.

Undermatching can be a blessing

“Undermatching” — attending a less-selective college — can be a blessing, writes Matt Reed, the “community college dean.”
David and Goliath
He’s been reading the new Malcolm Gladwell book, David and Goliath. Chapter 3 features “Caroline Sacks,” who went to Brown thinking she’d follow her dream of becoming a scientist.  “Outgunned intellectually” by her classmates, she switched to an easier field.  “Gladwell notes that Sacks was more than smart enough to have been the big fish in a smaller pond, but that choosing the big pond of Brown put her at a relative disadvantage,” writes Reed.

The  “undermatching” debate “presumes that less selective colleges are essentially traps,” writes Reed. Instead, “they provide the space in which people can get good at the things they love.”

As an undergrad, Reed struggled to compete at Williams.  “That first year — and especially that first semester — wasn’t pretty.” But the campus radio station wasn’t competitive at all. Knowing just enough to put together an audition tape, he became the jazz dj.

Since nobody knew anything, I was free to suck at first, and to figure things out as I went.  . . .  after a couple of years, I became capable of putting on a perfectly passable show.

If the radio station had been anywhere near as competitive as the academic side was, I never would have made it past the tryout.  I was only able to develop because I didn’t have to be good at first.  I could experiment.

The top one or two percent of students thrive in the “relentless culture of academic meritocracy” at elite colleges, Reed writes. For everyone else, it  inhibits experimentation and squanders talent.
Jon Marcus looks at the other side of undermatching in a review of Alexandria Walton Radford’s Top Students, Top School? Smart low-income students often forgo the most selective colleges because they don’t understand the admissions process, Radford writes. What you know determines where you go.

Valedictorians from low-income families were encouraged by their parents to choose the cheapest college and stay close to home, she found. Few parents understood financial aid.

High school counselors, often overworked, were characterized by students as “pretty lousy” and “incompetent.”


Community colleges must adapt or die

If community colleges cling to the “mini-university model,” they’ll fail, warns Bruce Leslie, chancellor of the Alamo Colleges in San Antonio, in the Huffington Post.

Community colleges serve almost half of higher education’s students today but face funding cuts, cost-sensitive customers and aggressive competitors, writes Leslie. Community colleges’ image is confusing and overly broad. The sector’s “traditions make any change ponderously slow.”

Meanwhile, for-profit colleges are competing for students. Key strategies include :

Customer Focus – in all things
Agile – able to respond quickly to the market
Placement – graduates matched to the market
Focus – niche driven to maximize enrollments and revenues
Marketing – sophisticated, continuous
Personal Service – the student/customer feels welcomed
Student Financial support – no lines, easy payment
Collective Mission – all employees focused on the customer
Scheduling – meets customers’ needs, not employees
Access – delivers where and when customer requires
Performance based – outcomes defined, applied/contextual learning with measured results
Streamlined – minimal credit hours to achieve certification

Community colleges need to adapt or die, writes Leslie. “We must stop functioning like mini-universities and fulfill the founding promise of a student centered, market responsive, academically innovative organization.”

China invests in college

China is spending $250 billion a year to send tens of millions of young people to community colleges and universities, reports the New York Times. China has quadrupled the output of two- and four-year college graduates in the last decade.

The aim is to change the current system, in which a tiny, highly educated elite oversees vast armies of semi-trained factory workers and rural laborers. China wants to move up the development curve by fostering a much more broadly educated public, one that more closely resembles the multifaceted labor forces of the United States and Europe.

Li Shufu, the chairman of the automaker Geely, has opened a university that stresses engineering and science, particularly auto engineering, endowed a liberal arts university and “opened a 5,000-student vocational community college in his hometown, Taizhou, to train skilled blue-collar workers.”

As recently as 1996, only one in six Chinese 17-year-olds graduated from high school. That was the same proportion as in the United States in 1919. Now, three in five young Chinese graduate from high school, matching the United States in the mid-1950s.

China’s community colleges and universities produce eight million graduates a year, compared to three million a year in the U.S., which has about one-fourth the number of people.

Some question the quality of China’s higher education system, notes the Times.  Experts say “the growth of classroom slots in higher education has outstripped the supply of qualified professors and instructors.”


Phoenix blocks community college degrees

The for-profit “University of Phoenix played a key role in defeating legislation that would have allowed community colleges in Arizona to offer low-priced bachelor’s degree programs,” reports Sarah Pavlus in The American Independent.

That allowed the for-profit chain to continue to advertise that it offers more degrees than community colleges.

University of Phoenix is one of Arizona’s  biggest employers. The company “provided research and political muscle for a multi-year lobbying campaign,”  Pavlus writes.

For-profit schools and community colleges generally serve the same working, non-traditional student demographic, but tuition rates at community colleges are often much lower.

Historically, community colleges have offered two-year associate’s degrees, with students then transferring to other schools to earn a bachelor’s degree – also known as a baccalaureate degree. Recent efforts by community colleges to offer their own baccalaureate degree programs have been controversial, in part because they dramatically expand the traditional mission of these schools.

But advocates say these programs – which typically require approval from state lawmakers – better respond to student and employer needs by providing affordable, career-oriented, four-year degrees.

Beginning in 2005, the University of Phoenix lobbied Arizona state lawmakers against the community college baccalaureate option. In a 2006 meeting with Wall Street analysts, University of Phoenix founder John Sperling credited one of his top executives with “killing the community colleges’ four-year degree program in Arizona.”

Community colleges in 21 states now offer bachelor’s degrees, usually in occupational fields. Florida is the leader: Its 22 community colleges have added bachelor’s degrees in nursing, elementary education, business management and other majors that meet local workforce needs. In some states, public universities have lobbied to block community colleges from expanding into baccalaureate programs. It’s competition.

Getting to Graduation: How — and how many?

Community colleges, occupational certificate programs and apprenticeships are key parts of the campaign to improve higher education success, write policy analysts in  Getting to Graduation: The Completion Agenda in Higher Education.  The book calls for rethinking financial aid, remediation and funding policies to promote completion.

Editors Andrew P. Kelly, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute,  and Mark Schneider, vice president for the American Institutes for Research, discussed needed reforms in an e-mail interview with Inside Higher Ed

 The growth in middle-skill jobs, particularly in fields like healthcare and information technology, means that we are going to need more workers with sub-baccalaureate credentials.

The book highlights two particular approaches to boosting sub-baccalaureate productivity. First, several states have invested in one or two-year occupational certificate programs that have shown promising results. For instance, Tennessee’s Technology Centers boast high completion rates, low costs-per-degree, and strong labor market returns, providing the state with a high return on its investment.

. . . Second, federal and state governments should expand formal apprenticeship programs, where students learn on the job and complete academic coursework, all while earning a wage from a participating employer.

Community college leaders can’t just wait for public funding to return, Schneider and Kelly write. They must look for changes that will improve productivity.

It is important to remember that although community colleges are cheap for consumers, they can be expensive for taxpayers. High rates of remediation and student attrition often translate to high costs per student outcome.

Adding student success initiatives to the existing structure won’t be effective, they argue. Entrepreneurial community college leaders are asking:

How can colleges shift some of their instruction from brick and mortar classrooms into quality online models that lower costs and build capacity? How can they leverage a competency-based approach to reduce the time and money spent on remediation?

. . . tweaks to student aid programs, more articulation agreements and even replication of particular “disruptive” innovations will not be sufficient to achieve new goals.

State and federal policies should “encourage providers — new and established, public, nonprofit or for-profit — to compete with one another on the value they deliver to their students,” Kelly and Schneider conclude. “If we wish to make dramatic improvements in student success and productivity, policies should cultivate a market that rewards those things.”


Badges undercut colleges’ monopoly on credentials

Badges aren’t just for Boy Scouts — or video game enthusiasts — anymore,  I write on U.S. News.

The Mozilla Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) have created a $2 million Digital Media and Learning Competition to encourage the development of digital badges that recognize lifelong learners’ knowledge and skills.

Applicant A’s résumé shows an associate degree in business. By taking community college classes, studying online and learning on the job, Applicant B has earned “digital badges” in product design, marketing, business writing, sales, bookkeeping, leadership, mentoring and teamwork. Who gets the job?

If digital badges gain employers’ respect, which is a significant if, colleges and universities will face significant competition, writes Kevin Carey, policy director of Education Sector.

“Traditional colleges and universities use their present monopoly on the credentialing franchise to extract increasingly large sums of money from students,” writes Carey.

Digital badges could break that monopoly, giving people multiple ways to prove they know what they know, no matter how they learned it.