Introducing 'Across the Sectors'

More administrators and professors are moving between nonprofit and for-profit colleges or working in both simultaneously. Trenda Boyum-Breen begins a new column on navigating the shift.

March 22, 2013

The dramatic change to the higher education landscape is top of mind for leaders in every sector -- from the tidal wave of online education opportunities and the discovery and onset of MOOCs, to college tuition increases surpassing the rate of inflation, to the influx of other disruptive innovations such as simulations and e-books, pressure to reduce operational costs while sustaining quality, increasing access and measuring overall student success.

Administrators need to not only address these issues, but do so by successfully managing change in a change-resistant industry. Now more than ever administrators need to look at the business aspects of higher education in order to successfully navigate this changing landscape, and most importantly maintain their relevance and survival. 

Over the past two decades, many higher education administrators have been watching the disruption driven by the for-profit sector, cautiously intrigued by the innovative solutions to access and learning technologies they were pioneering. The for-profit sector was making proactive advancements to navigate and lead this change, and in some cases these institutions were testing options and opportunities to a greater degree than the nonprofits were.

In a way many for-profits have represented a veritable research and development arm of higher education because of their resources and willingness to take risks to meet the changing needs of the student populations they serve. Keenly focusing on their core mission, these institutions have driven new educational models at a fast, disruptive pace that ultimately becomes adapted and recognized by the broader market. 

I am one of an increasing number of college administrators who have crossed the sector divide, venturing between both worlds multiple times in my career.  The first time, I was working at a state, urban community and technical college in Minneapolis when a former colleague recruited me to a burgeoning for-profit university just up the street. Intrigued by the advancements of this university, I joined educational leaders across the country who were taking what could be considered a professional risk by venturing into an unfamiliar segment of the industry.

We all had strong roots in and a passion for the mission of education, and at the same time we aspired to contribute to even greater student access, success and organizational accountability in an environment that welcomed change, invested in student outcomes and promoted innovation.

I returned to nonprofit higher education after several years and incorporated and utilized some of the administrative skill sets I gained from my for-profit experience.  While not all of these skills were fully welcomed at the state university where I was working, most were highly valued and incorporated in varying ways across the institution. I found my time back in nonprofit higher education invigorating and deeply rewarding. 

However, this year I was presented with yet another opportunity to return to the for-profit segment as the chief academic officer of Rasmussen College.  Already familiar with Rasmussen College’s reputation for developing innovative solutions with a focus on student outcomes, I was thrilled to be asked to lead its academic division as it entered a second century of business. 

I have now spent half of my career at nonprofit institutions and half at for-profits. Together this has given me an interesting perspective on the direction and opportunities that exist in the overarching higher education industry. Coupling my deep commitment to the promise of higher education with this fairly unique professional journey, I invite you to join me as I share my experiences and insights and seek to begin a conversation with other professionals in higher education. Welcome to Across the Sectors.


Trenda Boyum-Breen is chief academic officer of Rasmussen College, in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn.


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