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This year I had the good fortune to get spend some time with Frank Britt, the CEO of Penn Foster.  I was amazed to learn that Penn Foster graduates over 25,000 students per year, and has been doing distance learning since (starting with correspondence courses) since 1890.  

Whatever we think about the place of proprietary education in our higher ed ecosystem, it seems like it makes sense to at least know the players. How could a company with such a seemingly big reach in education operate completely outside of my radar?   

Frank graciously agreed to answer some questions about Penn Foster, and I wanted to share my questions and his answers with you. Below is an edited for space version of his responses.  I hope that you jump off my questions to also ask Frank anything that you want to know about Penn Foster, the world of for-profit education, and where he sees the place of proprietary institutions in higher ed.

Many members of our IHE community have been very critical of for-profit players. Here is an opportunity to open up a dialogue.

Question 1:  I had previously never heard about Penn Foster, which is amazing as you have been doing distance learning for over 35 years and have over 30,000 students currently enrolled. Why is it that Penn Foster does not get the attention of the other for-profits?

We have historically been below the cloud line as academic thought leadership was not an imperative. However, as we move to new models of blended learning, academic service innovation, pay-as-you-go-payments, emphasis on competence based education, etc – all which we already do at scale - the time has arrived focus to break-out  and establish a level industry leadership that positions the school as legitimate leader in a growing part of the overall edu marketplace.

Penn Foster is more concerned with promoting our students and the employers we work with than ourselves. We do have a rich 123-year history as the original correspondence school, and our school graduates 25,000 students yearly and enrolls approximately 140,000.  But, we are focused on helping our students, who include adult learners underserved by traditional for-profits and higher ed (except for community college), to achieve success. We are also concerned with helping the thousands of employers we work with to provide their employees with the training they need to reduce workplace turnover.  

Moreover, as online schools continue to gain in popularity and credibility, Penn Foster is achieving results and continuing to build its reputation in the online learning community.  We are accredited by the Accrediting Commission of the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC), which is nationally recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, and regionally accredited by the Council on Middle States.  It is also licensed by the Pennsylvania State Board of Private Licensed Schools.  The American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE CREDIT) has evaluated and recommended college credit for many Penn Foster College courses.  
Question 2.  My understanding is that Penn Foster differentiates itself by not taking government-backed student loans. How much does it cost a student to get a Bachelors in Business Management from Penn Foster (assuming they have no college credits)?  How would this degree be financed? How long would it take?

Penn Foster’s degree programs are 80% less than other alternatives. For example, our bachelor’s degree in business management is eight semesters long, and the total price ranges from $8,240 to $10,560. This breaks down to a cost of $68 per credit hour to $88 per credit hour.  With these flexible options, students are able to graduate debt-free, leaving them without the stress of paying back student loan debt.

We believe students should have the opportunity to complete and finance their education on their own time, at their own pace. Students have the option of paying in full or spacing out the costs with small monthly tuition payments.  An automatic payment plan is available that also includes a discount on tuition.  Most students start with a down-payment of ~$100. For a Bachelors in Business Management, the cost of the program ranges from $1,030 to $1,320 per semester depending on the payment plan students choose.  Students who choose to make a one-time payment for their degree are rewarded with a $290 discount and pay $1,030, while students who choose the monthly payment plan pay $1,320.  Business is a top five associate degree program at Penn Foster.
Question 3.  I'm always interested in what traditional higher ed can learn from our colleagues in the for-profit world.  From what I can see, Penn Foster has managed to provided accredited degree programs at price points much lower than either other for-profit institutions and many (particularly private) non-profits.  What would you say are the big things that Penn Foster has learned that you think could be applied to other areas of the higher ed sector?

In the constantly evolving education space, we’ve learned that one thing should never change: our concern for our students.  Our pay-as-you-go monthly payment model with no debt risk reflects this mindset.  We want to make their educational experience as enjoyable and affordable as possible, so we give them payment options that work around their schedules, cash flow and their life model.  We also treat our students like valued “consumers,” offering them the quality, price and convenience they deserve.  Students receive a top-notch, career-oriented education and graduate with zero debt.  Our courses work around their schedules and are paced to their aptitude, enabling them to study and take courses whenever it is most convenient for them with the motivational advantages of large-scale, peer-to-peer encouragement and unlimited expert support.

Other institutions need to understand that if a student is eager to learn but cannot afford an education or make time for one, it is up to the institution to create solutions that offer flexible payment plans and scheduling options that meet the student’s needs.  This might mean that institutions need to offer a more flexible graduation timeline that allows students to complete their degree when they have the time and money to do so.  Today, educators need to realize that in order to achieve superior results, they need to build new types of relationships with students through a culture of hospitality, which involves nurturing a strong relationship between the student and the institution and helping the student to feel supported as a member of that school’s community.  This involves developing the right blend of flexibility, self-paced learning and personalized attention.

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