Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Wearing a New Hat

July 28, 2009- Community colleges have worn many hats since they proliferated the education space in the 1960s and 70s. We think of community colleges as a place for adult learners to test the waters of higher education and gain credentials for the workforce. That’s still a large segment of their market. Yet, community colleges have been so much more.

Executives with master’s degrees have enrolled to pick up a skill they could use for work- like how to master Excel. Visiting undergrads have stepped on campus to redeem themselves after falling short first semester freshman year at a state university. Even for people in the community who never stepped into a classroom, they may have played in a high school basketball tournament or won a state semifinal in baseball on campus. Community Colleges have always been woven into the fabric of our communities.

This month, the federal government is shining a spotlight on community colleges with another hat to wear, specifically a re-visited role to help displaced workers transition into new positions in the workforce. The New York Times recently pointed out that, “Even before the announcement Tuesday, the Obama administration had put unprecedented emphasis on two-year institutions. Martha J. Kanter, the former chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College district in California, was tapped for the second-highest job in the Education Department. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan chose a Miami community college for his first official visit to an institution of higher education, and last month Mr. Duncan announced a $7 million grant program for community colleges to train laid-off auto workers and other displaced workers. And it has not hurt that Jill Biden, the Vice President’s wife, teaches at a community college.” Those of us who follow higher education, can’t help but notice this shift.

While the story may read as simple as a celebration that twelve billion dollars is going to the nation’s community college network – take a closer look at what that means for our higher education system. Think about all time high enrollments and all time high budget cuts and what that means for the retention of students – students with diverse socio-economic as well as academic backgrounds. Now add to the formula, the additional 5 million students who the new administration is hoping to channel into the community college system for job training and workforce development. It feels like it could be a bit overwhelming to the system – unless community colleges are proactive in their preparation.

This summer at the Council of North Central Two Year Colleges (CNCTYC) president’s retreat, it was clear that progressive community college leaders are rethinking their business as usual. They realize that making small changes can add up to big results when it comes to servicing students and improving the student experience – whether they are enrolling for an accelerated certificate or a longer-term degree program. This means innovation, such as investigating online delivery options as well as new technology-based student service models to guide retention and completion efforts.

We’ve been working with CNCTYC’s member schools to demonstrate the value of providing technology to students to identify a career goal, manage their curriculum and map out their degree path, especially at a time when the link between education and employment is so imperative. The more resources, information, and practical tools we can provide to learners – the more empowered they become as students. We’ll continue to work with community colleges to meet the needs of the growing number of community college students as the federal plan unfolds.

Hats off to those recognizing the value of community colleges and their role in the recovery of our economy.

Monday, July 20, 2009

ConnectEDU Partners Share A Collaborative Vision at Annual Summit

July 20, 2009- Last week, we had the privilege of welcoming our shareholders to the ConnectEDU Annual Shareholders Meeting. Held at the Starr Center in Boston, the annual summit program included a 12 month summary of ConnectEDU’s progressive development and an overview of what is next on the Company’s accelerated growth plan.

The highlight of the evening was hearing from two of our key partners in the ConnectEDU National Network™ – Jeff Brenzel, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University, and Chris Anderson, Executive Director at the Massachusetts High Technology Council. Hearing first hand from partners who share our mission and passion to empower students to manage their education and launch their career was energizing to say the least!

Following this year’s annual summit, remarks were made to me that this was our best shareholder meeting to date. I couldn’t agree more! Both the involvement of our partners as well as our staff, brought a synergy to the group that was very apparent. After reflecting over the weekend, I am excited that our shareholders shared in the same passion that I see everyday - both from our partners and from our staff – and realize that all involved are committed to one goal – empowering students to manage their education and launch their career.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Joining Forces

July 10, 2009- In this economy, as businesses are meandering through changing times, there’s no shortage of mergers, acquisitions, and partnerships in every industry imaginable. Is Fiat buying Chrysler? When is ITT taking over Daniel Webster College? While all too common these days, it is nothing new. Think Williams and Sonoma, Proctor and Gamble, and Exxon and Mobil. Fortunately, joining forces often yields a better organization and a better result for the consumer. Such is the case at ConnectEDU.

As we near the first anniversary of Prep HeadQuarters joining Connect! in the ConnectEDU National Network™, I’ve been reflecting on the success of the past year – how taking two platforms with similar missions has strengthened a national network for college and career planning. As I look to the future, I’ve also been thinking about the evolution of other success stories where organizations joined forces to make change on a national scale.

How about when Barnes met Noble, for example?

When in 1873 Charles M. Barnes opened a home book business in Wheaton, Illinois, he probably didn’t envision his son William joining forces with G. Clifford Noble to open the first Barnes & Noble in New York in 1917. It may not have crossed his mind that later during the Great Depression their flagship Barnes & Noble on 5th Avenue would become known as the premier bookstore in the nation. Combining forces proved to be effective.

Neither the Barnes family nor Noble probably knew that across town in Greenwich Village several decades later, a college bookstore clerk at NYU decided he could better serve students with his own competing bookstore and opened The Student Book Exchange in 1965 and soon thereafter expanded to operate several other college bookstores. In the 70s, this one-time bookstore clerk turned entrepreneur Leonard Riggio added the flagship Barnes & Noble store to its own operations and turned it into the “Largest bookstore in the World”. Other 1980s acquisitions of B. Dalton Booksellers, Doubleday Book Shops and Scribner’s bookstore name, propelled B&N onto a national stage. Combining forces proved to be effective.

Of course, since there is probably a B&N somewhere near your home, you know the rest of the history. It’s interesting to understand the unexpected twists and planned turns behind the growth of a company – something we never lose sight of at ConnectEDU as we build our national reputation.

Like the various moves that helped Barnes & Noble become a national name, the combination of Connect! and PrepHQ in the ConnectEDU National Network over the past year has been a success story of growth in the marketplace.

Swiftly, we’ve become the nation’s largest and most prolific college and career planning network with 20% of the college bound student population, in part due to the services-oriented philosophy we expanded upon with the leadership of the PrepHQ team. In addition to providing the best experience to our current users, we’ve expanded the network faster than in any previous year, a precarious year when schools are seeking technology to save money.

For our college partners who joined the network to provide greater access to students, expansion means hundreds of thousands of more students to meet and help!

As we celebrate the successful merger of the Connect! and PrepHQ teams under the ConnectEDU umbrella, we continue to make progress in a changing marketplace. We continue to strengthen our network with robust partnerships, expanded offerings, and a dedication to the students and families we serve.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

School's Out

July 2, 2009- Here in the Northeast, the mounds of snow, icy roads, and howling winds are months behind us, yet they echoed in the halls of every school that had to wait until the end of June for their final day. Despite the 50 degree weather and incessant rainfall around me, it’s officially summer and school’s out.

That got me thinking about how some decisions in education are rarely challenged- how change is so hard to muster when it comes to systems that were put in place long before our time. Take summer vacation. I don’t know many school age kids who still hit the fields to help their Ma and Pa plow the land or harvest the crop - and I grew up in a place where that really means something. There was a time when from sun up 'til sun down, during a period in which we were developing our education system, that students stopped going to school and made their way to the fields. It was a matter of survival. The result was a summer vacation, still unchanged today except hoes and pitchforks have been replaced by sunscreen, beach towels and summer camp.

This week at the National Association of College and University Business Officers’ summer meeting in Boston – aggressive models for change were discussed in an effort to deal with the financial crisis. One such model coming out of Arizona is a proposal to create a “no frills” education where the student experience is modified or stripped down, depending how you look at it - meaning greater student/faculty ratios and less services. Reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The program is envisioned as a middle ground between the state’s research universities and its community colleges. Students would receive Arizona State degrees, but they would not have the student-life or research opportunities available to students on the main campus. Tuition would be lower than the cost of attending one of the existing campuses…” And, in New Hampshire they already have a similar model underway with the University of Southern New Hampshire.

The good news is that colleges are thinking about large-scale changes – changing the way they’ve been doing business for decades. And, this new approach seems to be in stark contrast to the over-building era of the 90's and early in the current decade when colleges competed with state-of-the-art fitness facilities, student union game rooms and bowling alleys. Far gone are those days!

Of concern is whether or not these proposed changes are at the expense of the student; perhaps not a monetary expense but at the expense of outcomes. Anyone who’s studied Vincent Tinto’s research, knows how an engaged student experience leads to positive retention outcomes... and therefore completion rates. Minimizing these initiatives, or the “thrills”, may lead to a greater retention issue than that which already exists.

So why in education are we always focused on change at the most drastic of levels? Why not evaluate our operational processes and look for savings and efficiencies in the way that we conduct business... things like admission processing, better yield prediction models, leveraging of endowment and state funds to create capital risk pools and drive down the cost of an education, moving our utilization of our capital expenditures (buildings) beyond the 15% utilization rate that is so commonly accepted today. Aren't there some more basic measures that we can be taking?

At ConnectEDU, we continue to explore cost-saving solutions for colleges including how they connect with students. We’re committed to finding solutions that help colleges save money by using accessible technology for admission and enrollment marketing. We want to improve the admissions process so MORE students have the opportunity of getting into school and colleges can further concentrate on helping students get out of school… with a degree!