Making sure our students have the resources and support they need to succeed in their postsecondary education pursuits is an issue of paramount concern. Steve Gunderson, CECU president and CEO, and Joe Laskowski, managing partner and chief marketing officer at Higher Ed Growth, discussed this issue and how it relates to the future of success in higher education.
Student access, or enrollment, versus outcomes has been a topic of debate in recent years. There has been a transition of focus from enrollment to ensuring outcomes in the career education sector especially. Laskowski emphasizes balance of these two metrics. “While discussions have shifted toward student success due to new regulations and heightened expectations, there’s always going to be a strong and important connection between enrollments and outcomes,” he says. “It’s critical that the industry doesn’t focus so tightly on one end on the spectrum that they lose sight of the other. Quality enrollments truly start the path toward student success. Matching the right student to the right degree program and school significantly increases positive outcomes.”
“The most effective enrollment tool is local marketing that connects the school’s career programs with the community’s clear demand for skilled workers. That said, some initiatives, such as dual enrollment, can help students get a head start on their degree programs and help them complete on time,” says Gunderson. “But we need to be realistic that in many states and communities, the high schools are not very welcoming to our sector. So this will not work in all cases.” Laskowski agrees: “Dual enrollment is an absolutely viable model for trade schools. It underscores the mission of being an affordable and quality option with top earnings potential.”
As far as open enrollments, Laskowski says that the practice has some benefits. “Students who might otherwise never attend college are given a chance to further their education and pursue their career goals,” he notes. “Colleges are able to focus on curriculum and student success.”
“In the past, schools in our sector grew too much, too fast while practicing open enrollment that allowed wide access to higher education,” says Gunderson. “The conversation around open enrollment should acknowledge that limiting enrollment could potentially prevent students who are most in need of an education from accessing it, while also striking a balance between access to higher education and ensuring that students are academically prepared to succeed in school and beyond is important to generating higher outcomes. Whether we like it, or it is best for the student, in today’s world it is all about student outcomes!”
Operational Costs and Branding
Private sector schools face the challenge of operating without subsidies. To compete with this and other challenges such as the “Free College Now” movement, Laskowski says establishing strong, solid brand reputations is important. He notes that while competition will always exist, institutions with strong reputations have a more solid foundation for success. “One of the ways to build a strong brand is to show a clear correlation between the value of the school’s degree and post-graduate earnings,” says Laskowski. In addition, Laskowski suggests highlighting degree programs that align with job trends and the skills gap, as well as working to engage students from the admissions and recruitment status to provide adequate support.
“While schools in other sectors of higher education have almost 50% of their costs funded by state and local governments, private sector career colleges do not have such resources,” says Gunderson. “Career schools are able to provide access and opportunities that are not available at other institutions, and highlighting those unique features make our schools competitive in the higher education landscape. I have had many students tell me that the accelerated, focused academic delivery of our programs actually enables the student to begin earning a good salary much sooner than at other institutions.”
Student success can also be linked to retention and the tools that career colleges have to support and retain students through their programs. Laskowski notes that some approaches schools have taken to retain students include software that can reveal opportunities for increased retention, specifically noting self-placement programs and student progress tracking. Also helpful are student communities, says Laskowski, which can be based on academic goals and provide additional guidance.
“Retention leads to degrees and jobs! Establishing a framework for retention lays the ground for higher outcomes, better support, and overall a higher degree of success for both students and institutions,” says Gunderson. “Using relevant demographic and behavioral data to drive decisions can provide insights into where more support is needed to ensure that students are retained through completion.”
Laskowski also highlights the importance of using data in retention strategies. ““From increasing enrollments to maintaining steady retention, using the most accurate and up-to-the-minute data to drive decisions is always going to give colleges an edge,” he says. “Career colleges have long used data in enrollment marketing. Tools for retention further strengthen these efforts.”
Apprenticeships and Credentialing
One area where CECU has been focused on creating a framework for student success within schools is connecting apprenticeships to academic credit. “Academic credit for apprenticeships would give students good opportunities to get hands-on training, while directly connecting it to their degree program,” says Gunderson. “This provides an even wider avenue for students to complete their education successfully, on time, and with a well-rounded understanding of the industry they will be entering.”
Laskowski also sees the value of ideas such as credentialing, and acknowledges the industry-wide shift in accepting such programs. With good reason, he says: “It offers dual benefits to students and schools, and there’s a groundswell of interest from prospective students.”
In the end, says Gunderson, it really is all about successful placement. “Helping students get a career in their chosen industry is the biggest challenge but most important aspect of measuring success,” he says. “We work hard to provide quality educational programs so that students can be marketable candidates for sustainable, fulfilling jobs. Supporting them through the placement process is crucial – from employer partnerships to career fairs to an active and helpful campus career center, there are many ways institutions can work to ensure that framework is there to help students achieve their career goals.” Laskowski touches on the importance of making sure students are placed in the degree program at the right school for them, as well. “It can be a complex and costly process to match the right students to the right schools and degree programs. The most successful schools often have two things in common: expert marketing partners and technology,” Laskowski says. “It means the recruitment process is streamlined to reduce inefficiencies — placing resources in student hands as quickly as possible — minimize errors and maintain compliance.”
Promoting the success of career colleges and their students is an additional, and integral, facet of communicating with policymakers and the media. “Those in the government and the media are typically more interested in student success, not specific school success,” says Gunderson. “This has implications for school strategies in that they should shift their focus to highlighting the success of their students and graduates, using these stories to communicate the importance of career colleges and showing how an education from career education institutions can truly change lives.” Laskowski says that because of this, schools should be even more focused on improving outcomes and generating more success stories to share. “Today, all schools should be looking for ways to improve that end game. Many are moving to boot camps and others are moving to ISA models (Income Sharing Agreements) where the students don’t pay a dime until they are employed,” he says. “The industry has shifted and those that would like to ensure their longevity must follow suit.”
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