By Neil Raisman
[Editor's Note: Today, at Higher Ed Watch, we are running the third and final entry in a series of guest posts from Neal Raisman, who served as the chancellor of the Career Education Corporation’s Briarcliffe College from 2001 to 2005. In this post, he outlines changes he believes for-profit colleges and the companies that own them must make to clean up their act and better serve their students.]
In the first two parts of this series (see here and here), I have highlighted problems in the for-profit college sector. It is important to emphasize that the examples given and the problems cited may not apply to every school and company, but they do for too many. And these examples are the sorts that are easily found on the Internet, in the news media, and in the Congressional hearing record, so they reflect poorly even on schools that haven’t done anything wrong.
As I said previously, it is important that the sector stop patting itself on the back all the time and be real about some of the players within it. It is necessary to take the whispering at meetings like those held by the Career College Association and do something to stop the offenders from harming and maybe even destroying the whole industry. We all know there are issues, yet little is done about them by the Career College Association, its members, or the accrediting agencies. As a result, we have federal hearings and the rules the Department of Education is considering.
So what can be done to avoid these problems going forward?
To start, the sector needs to hire more leaders who have had experience in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. The companies that run these schools need to understand that a college is an educational institution first that makes money through its successful recruitment, teaching, retention, customer service, graduation and placement of students. Students must be treated as what they are --customers. That does not mean giving them what we think they want such as high grades for little work but real academic customer service. This includes good classroom experiences, training that does apply to the real world by professors who can teach, class sections that are offered without sudden cancellation, equipment that is up-to-date and appropriate to the learning, good tutoring when needed, an environment that is both academic and attractive and most important, people who care and value them as students.
This means that people all the way through the student experience must provide good academic customer service that is also within the rules and regulations that govern colleges. That means being honest and upfront on all issues and trying to help resolve them to the students’ and schools’ benefit. Remember a dropout will not register for more classes. So for example, when a student is behind in tuition payments, schools should not just send a dunning letter and pull the student from class, as they often do now. Schools should instead sit down with the student and try to help him or her find ways to make the payments. If they do that, even if the student finally has to leave, she will feel the school did all it could to help out and won’t become a potential hearing complainant.
The campus president or director should have the care and feeding of students as her primary job. She should think of herself as the DoCS, the Director of Customer Service. It should be her obligation to deal with and resolve any and all student issues before they become complaints. If she is in her office too much, she is not working with the student body enough. She must also be the DoCS for the staff of the college and become an advocate for them with corporate headquarters or whomever she reports to. She should make sure everyone knows the rules of good academic customer service and lives by them
In terms of employee compensation, the entire bonus system should probably be ended and replaced with a better base salary plus a salary scale increase system so successful people get promoted and/or receive salary increases regularly. Bonuses just push people to possibly do things that cause colleges problems later.
In general, the whole industry needs to just settle down and realize that it is not possible to keep growing at rates that are outpacing the market every quarter. There was a time when that was possible when the sector was still relatively new in the 1990’s with a huge market and not all that many players. Now the sector is crammed with what may be too many schools for all to be successful. There are so many career colleges out there that even the small markets are over-crowded. But investors want a good return so even weak schools need to perform somehow. This single-minded focus on growth has gotten too many school in trouble and made the entire sector the target of federal hearings.
Someone needs to regulate the industry from within or it will continue to be the subject of hearings, and new regulations on both the State and Federal levels. Someone needs to be the watchdog and sniff out issues before they become obvious to everyone. Someone needs to have the authority to oversee the sector and be able to tell a school or company that it may not do certain things, such as promising prospective students things that they cannot possibly deliver. It may be that schools should be under a regulating/accrediting agency not for academic programs but sort of as” a Good College Keeping” seal of approval that can be given or taken away based on whether a school is in line or not. Perhaps this is a role that CCA can take on, though I do not see it doing this. But this type of scrutiny needs to come from within the sector or it will just keep coming from the outside.
Finally, since there is no such regulating body, individual colleges and schools need to police their own activities. They cannot permit anyone from the school’s president on down to engage in any deceptive practices, claims, or actions that will harm students, even if it means that some number is not hit. Better to miss a start, for example, than to provide more fodder for Congressional hearings.
Neal Raisman is a leading consultant and solution provider for academic customer service, administrative leadership and retention solutions. He has assisted over 400 schools, colleges and universities in the US, Canada and Europe. From 2001 to 2005, he served as chancellor of the Career Education Corporation’s Briarcliffe College. Previous to that, he served as president at two community colleges, and as the associate provost at the University of Cincinnati. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New America Foundation. Portions of this essay have also run on Career College Central.