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Can you imagine alumni of Corinthian Colleges rallying to save it?

A comparison with Sweet Briar.

June 23, 2015

Can you imagine alumni of Corinthian Colleges rallying to save it?

I can’t.

The contrast with Sweet Briar College is striking. Sweet Briar alumnae have apparently earned a stay of execution for the college, cobbling together $12 million in donations and getting judicial permission to free up another $16 million from the endowment to fund ongoing operations. That’s obviously not sustainable, but it could buy some time to try to create something sustainable. Making changes radical enough to defeat shifts in demographics will take vision, courage, and considerable luck, but it’s possible.  

Sweet Briar has some serious strikes against it, and the judicial decision doesn’t change any of them. It’s still rural, at a time when that’s out of favor. It’s still focused on liberal arts, at a time when private four-year liberal arts colleges below the elite level are struggling. It’s still single-sex, at a time when that, too, is harder to sustain. It’s in an area of flat or declining population, meaning that it can’t simply ride a demographic wave to growth. And it sent out a signal to the world that it’s precarious at best, which might well scare away people with other options.

Still, I have to be impressed by the vigor of the alums who pulled together to save it. They’ve organized nationally, retained lawyers, contributed time and money, and put real personal passion into saving it. It must have been doing something right for a long time to generate that kind of loyalty.

I haven’t seen anything similar for Corinthian. Corinthian actually had certain traits more in its favor than Sweet Briar did: it had a clear career focus, it had locations more in touch with current demographics, it was coed, and it was cheaper. (People who assume that for-profits are the most expensive options sometimes forget to compare them to private four-year colleges.) It had a significant online presence, and it didn’t have the overhead costs of dorms or horse stables.  

And yet, for all those advantages, it neglected quality control of its product. And its alums know it.  

Corinthian alums have been active, but in a very different way. Instead of trying to save Corinthian, they campaigned -- also successfully -- for loan forgiveness, arguing in essence that they never got what they paid for.  

Now, one could argue that for-profits don’t have foundations, in the traditional sense, so there’s no avenue for alumni giving anyway. When I was at DeVry, the CEO used to say that instead of an endowment, it had market capitalization. That was true, in a sense, but it missed the other key role of alumni. Yes, alumni can be valuable sources of donations. But they also wield power, both in numbers and in connections. A good alumni network can make things possible that otherwise would not be.  DeVry -- and probably the other for-profits as well -- never made much visible effort to court alums.  t didn’t see the reason to. But stockholders are fairweather friends; when things get bad, they don’t rally the troops. They abandon ship. Replacing alums with stockholders works tolerably well when the stock is rising, but when the stock drops, they won’t be there to save you.  

Community colleges, as a sector, have been slow to reach out to alums as support networks. That’s changing, though we still lag our four-year counterparts. If the whole Sweet Briar episode teaches nothing else, I hope it teaches the incredible value beyond money that an engaged network of graduates can offer.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you ever seen or heard of alums of a for-profit rallying to save it? I can’t think of a single case.

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Matt Reed

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