'Risk' and Reward

Academics who make a career shift to the for-profit sector sometimes face the added challenge of being "tarred" by the move, writes Trenda Boyum-Breen. She and others discuss why it's worth it.

April 19, 2013

The number of career changes an average person makes in their lifetime is on the rise, including for higher education professionals. The decision to leave your current institution for a new one is likely not easy; now imagine crossing over to a new sector.

In my first column I mentioned my decision to join other colleagues in higher education who have taken the risk to cross sectors from traditional higher education to for-profit. A reader picked up on me using the term “risk” and asked if I would expand on that. 

In general when I contemplated a move to a new institution, I reflected on the “fit” between what I brought to the table (both personally and professionally) and what the organization brought to the table (mission, culture, scope of the position, vision, location, reputation, etc.).  

However, for me, no matter how much I believed the “fit” was right at the for-profit, the stigma associated with for-profits created an extra “risk” in the decision. I reached out to colleagues to talk through my career trajectory as it related to this perceived risk, and their feedback confirmed the benefits would likely outweigh the risk. Interestingly, I have come to realize that my decision to cross sectors (a few times now) actually broadened my leadership skill set and made me attractive to the types of institutions that value that skill set, for-profit and nonprofit alike.  

Crossing the sectors gave me a broader perspective and tool kit for approaching issues, projects, finances and the like. Using data analytics to create service dashboards, predictive modeling, return on investment calculations, project management, and lean processing and shared governance are a sampling of such skills. 

Another reader, Andy Howe, offered some comments on the risk he associated with working in the for-profit sector.  Andy works for Walden University, recently transitioning from several years at a Big 10 university and a community college.  Andy states, “Many higher education communities do not take into consideration the differences among institutions within the sector, often considering all for-profits as negative.

“However, for me, it wasn't about for-profit versus nonprofit. Instead, I wanted to find an institution that was innovative and aligned with my career goals and professional values,” he said. “The individual institution and position were much more important than the sector, and Walden University met the criteria I had set for myself.”

A group of women leaders in the proprietary sector have recently organized under the name Women Leading in Proprietary Sector Higher Education (WLPSHE).   We spent some time discussing this topic.  One member of that group, Gwen Hillesheim, provost at Kendall College, worked at a land-grant university, some 501(c) 3s, and then a proprietary institution. 

When asked about any risk she perceived in crossing sectors, she said she “found these organizations to be much more alike than different. However, once ‘tarred’ with the paint brush of proprietary experience, there is much more work in explaining that very thing.”

She added, “I have been more challenged in the proprietary world, I enjoy it more, and don’t even mind being held to a higher standard than other schools. However, the constant justification is wearing. I know very few individuals that have gone from proprietary back to traditional. I myself did go from a for-profit to a not-for-profit private school during one part of my career.  My personal preference is to be challenged by my work over being unwelcome by the nonprofit sector, but the perception remains that we are unwelcome.”

There are many of us who see the differences between the various sectors of higher education rapidly diminishing. Online education has removed the physical barriers for student choice in institutions and forced innovation across all sectors. Nontraditional students (which many for-profits have served over the years) have far surpassed traditional student enrollment and created a new conversation around quality and value expectations. 

Even the way in which institutions are financed is converging as more traditional nonprofit schools are entering various relationships with for-profit services companies and philanthropic organizations in order to access capital and innovation. As I have found, this may make working across the sectors an attractive skill set and actual benefit rather than perceived risk.

Another WLPSHE colleague, Charlita Shelton, president of University of the Rockies, offered this advice: “Stay true to yourself as a professional and the mission of your institution. Don’t be distracted by the ‘noise’ around crossing the sectors.   Work hard and stay dedicated to your work.” 

Like Andy suggests, there are good and bad institutions in every sector. Assuming you avoid the bad ones, it may be worth considering the dimension of risk associated with whichever sector you are currently working within and where you see your career trajectory, and then find those institutions in which you will be most professionally satisfied. 

I wonder how many other readers have crossed into the for-profit sector from nonprofit and whether or not they associated risk with that experience.  I welcome your comments and advice to other readers.

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Trenda Boyum-Breen

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