Changing Demographics and Strategies for Student Success

On June 8, I had the privilege of participating in a session on student success at the Eduventures Summit in Boston with for-profit co-panelists Alan Drimmer, CEO of Promoted Inc. and former provost for University of Phoenix, and Diane Longhurst Johnson, president of New Charter University. Topics focused on our student demographics, the relevance of tax status to how students learn, policies/ actions we hope to see from the new administration, the potentially changing competitive landscape and implications of the proposed Purdue-Kaplan acquisition, and such issues as gainful employment and default ratios. These were clearly some difficult questions for any such panelist, let alone a new president like myself, to address.

In previous posts, I have spoken about our students and shared many of their compelling stories. In short, our students are smart consumers of higher education. There are a number of other related topics I’d like to now address.

What is the relevance of our tax status to how our students learn? Truth be told, academic quality, rigor, learning and career outcomes should not be tied to, nor contingent on, tax status. Universities and colleges across the country focus on student success, providing a quality and transformative learning experience, preparing students for meaningful careers, the world and life itself. Tax status is irrelevant. We are all evaluated on and meet similar criteria for accreditation. While there have clearly been some “bad actors” in our sector, one has only to read industry news or visit as a peer reviewer (as I have) schools in trouble financially or ethically in the not-for-profit sector to see the number of places in trouble across all of higher education, regardless of tax status or track record.

The relevancy of tax status does, however, cause one to reflect on business models. APUS is a tuition-dependent institution. We design our programs and offerings with successful student outcomes in mind and our mission is to provide an affordable education for the working adult. To do this right requires we understand the lives and motivations of our students. We listen to them, to their employers and to our partners through industry advisory councils who critique the relevance and currency of our curriculum.

Regarding affordability, we are extremely conscientious in our operational decision-making. We invest our tuition dollars in evolving the classroom, in attracting and retaining faculty experts respected in their fields, in advancing the student experience, in enhancing our existing programs and developing new ones such as our Momentum™ competency-based program and new applied doctoral programs, and in persistence and retention initiatives to support student success. Since we have no physical classrooms, dorms, athletic facilities or student union to maintain and subsidize, we can keep our tuition at all levels among the most affordable offered by four-year institutions. We invest our resources in students and their success.

In addition, unlike our not-for-profit peers, our tax status prevents us from pursuing the millions of dollars available to for research grants, precludes alumni fundraising or an endowment, and we pay property taxes. We also do not depend on variable state allocated dollars as public institutions do, which makes us more nimble and flexible in serving students. So while for-profits have been generally and unfairly stigmatized over the years due to the suspect actions of certain institutions, our mission and commitment are no different from those of universities across the country, no matter their sector.

There were a number of other recurring themes in the session raised by both Alan Drimmer and Diane Johnson regarding the differentiation of the for-profit sector. These included the inherent culture of innovation and agility which enables us and our sector to often be first-to-market with impactful new programs and delivery models. In addition, being for-profit means being laser-focused on connecting resources with students, and not using them for other purposes unrelated to learning outcomes.

Six months into the new administration, what policies and/or actions would we like to see that would most benefit the needs of working adults? For online institutions like American Military University serving active-duty students, the Department of Defense’s efforts to limit or deny base access have unjustly penalized our students and those attending other online schools by denying them critical face-to-face mentoring and counseling from school regional advisors historically available to them in support of their education success. We cannot support any policy that adversely impacts the more than four-out-of-five military students studying online, according to DoD statistics. In general, we seek regulatory reforms that stop discrimination against online or for-profit schools and treat all students and schools equitably.

How does the proposed Purdue-Kaplan acquisition potentially change the landscape? While this is a very innovative strategy on the part of the respective partners, it is too soon to anticipate the ultimate outcome from the standpoint of either pending regulatory approval or post-acquisition prospects. This transaction invites all of higher education to think creatively about the nature of our organizational structures for the future in serving the diverse needs of our students, but especially those of working adults.

What future strategies are needed? Anything that better enhances our collective ability to meet students where they are through alternative models like competency-based education and micro-credentials. There is much opportunity for further collaboration with public and private institutions, particularly in the area of data-driven decision-making and analysis. Creative partnerships with businesses and government are also essential to the success of higher education and providing programs for educating our global citizens for the future.

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