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California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools

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A Teachable Moment


Impatient Optimists, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. June 26, 2014.

When I think about for-profit colleges and universities, my mind naturally jumps to some of the big names. DeVry. Kaplan. Phoenix. Walden.

But at the recent Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU) Convention & Exposition, I met founders and CEOs from many smaller and lesser-known for-profit colleges and universities. In many ways, these institutions are the mom-and-pop shops of higher education, filling a need in their communities for career education and closely associating their curriculum and programs with the needs of local industries that help to keep their communities economically vibrant.  Duluth Business UniversityGreat Lakes Institute of Technology.Ayers Career College in Shreveport. Mandl School in New York City. Arlington Career Institute in Texas.   

These generally small, diverse community-based colleges and universities face some of the same significant challenges as other higher education institutions, such as financial, political, competitive and consumer pressures. And given their size, these challenges can be acute. 

Private sector colleges and universities have good and bad actors, but they often focus on our older, part-time students and provide them with a skill-based career-oriented education. So they also feel the tension between demand for real-world skills and the constraints of education regulatory constraints. Like many mom-and-pop retail shops everywhere, these institutions are trying to find ways to survive a dynamic and ever-changing landscape. 

In some ways, this is the age-old story of an established institution trying to transform itself to be relevant in the new world order. The small private sector schools face so much uncertainty as they guide institutions that they, and sometimes generations before them, worked hard to build. I saw a big investment in the personal attention they give to their students. This entailed providing a lot of pre-enrollment (admissions) coaching, basic coaching in non-cognitive skills and a commitment to personalized learning and mentoring. Often, but not always, these efforts were assisted with technology.

Their challenge instantly transported me to a time in my childhood. When I was 8 years old, the local dairy that delivered milk to my Rochester, New York, neighborhood for nearly 60 years decided to terminate its route and retire the milkman. Looking back, I know it was tied to the changing economic landscape. The end of the milkman, a man who was a fixture of our community for decades, was a watershed moment in our history.

The business model for the home-delivery milkman couldn’t adapt and milkmen are almost nonexistent. But I want to be more optimistic about these plucky private sector colleges, especially the mom-and-pop shops. They are working very hard to find innovative ways to stay relevant in the changing higher education landscape.  What’s at stake is avoiding the fate of the milkman.