Whatever you think about the pros or cons of the for-profit educational sector, one thing I think we can all agree on is that the for-profits are losing the communications game. Perhaps my circle of colleagues is unrepresentative, and perhaps the for-profits are unconcerned what educators in the non-profit world think, but I've seen a real shift in recent months toward a more critical stance about for-profits among my peers. I think this shift in perception is reflected in articles such as "Damaging Data on Loan Repayment" and other articles on the IHE "In Focus - For-Profit Higher Ed" page. A quick Google search for "for-profit higher education" (in http://news.google.com/) yields a slew of negative stories.
The response from the for-profits to all this negative press has been anemic, defensive, and ineffective. The best for-profits do have a real story to tell, but to communicate their story they need to start engaging in an authentic way with with higher ed community.
Here is how I'd proceed if I were a leader in the for-profit higher ed sector:
1. Encourage Authentic Communication: Find platforms where your leadership team, faculty, and employees can communicate with the higher ed community. This communication can be in personal blogs, op-ed pieces, and conference round-tables. They key is to get your people out into the conversation as individuals, and give up trying to control all the communication. Don't be afraid of the diversity of opinions and views, and try to encourage your communicators to engage in candid discussions of both the pros and cons of for-profit education. I believe that vast majority of people who work in for-profit education view themselves primarily as educators, and have migrated to the for-profit world because they see for-profits as the best place to make a true difference. Give your people training, support and some freedom - and let them tell your story.
\2. Engage in Applied Research: You have a ton of data relating to academic, financial and employment aspects of your students. These data represent an incredible opportunity to gain insight into the relationship between education and income, tuition and earnings etc. etc. Why not get out ahead of all the criticism and critiques by sponsoring and conducting research, using your own (anonymized) data. If you really believe that the for-profit education movement is a positive for individuals, communities and our nation than it makes sense to back these claims up with research. Start a research institute, publish a journal, sponsor conferences, and be clear that you are doing so so that you can alter and change your policies and procedures based on what you find.
3. Embrace Transparency: You are going to have to decide that the benefits of transparency outweigh any competitive advantage towards keeping your operations private. In a normal business, keeping operations as private as possible probably makes sense. You don't want to give away your strategy and business practices to competitors. But education is not a normal business, and it is important that your operational and cultural norms start to more closely resemble the tradition (non-profit) educational world. Two places you can start making your business more transparent are your courses and your faculty. Find ways to share with the educational community your course development materials and the courses that result. Place your methodologies and educational materials under Creative Commons license. Open up your faculty training materials. On the faculty side, open up as much information you can on who is teaching your courses. How many faculty do you hire? What are their qualifications? How much are they paid? How are they trained? I think you have a great story to tell about how you are hiring and paying full and part-time educators. Many people love teaching for your institutions, and value the experience and the employment. You should be telling their stories, and finding ways they can tell their stories.
Are you in a leadership position in a for-profit? How can we began to engage in a productive and authentic conversation?
What advice would you give to our leadership colleagues the for-profit education sector?
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