After 11 months on the job, there’s still resolve in Harris Miller’s voice when discussing his role as CEO and President of the Career College Association (CCA). His mission in leading the national membership organization for institutions offering career-specific education hasn’t changed since day one, nor has his apparent fortitude.
Shortly after a search panel selected Miller as Nick Glakas’ successor in February 2007, Miller rolled up his sleeves and, as promised, eagerly engaged in a variety of issues challenging the career college sector. He had already managed to defend the sector on The New York Times editorial pages by the six-month mark. With a month or so before he celebrates a full year in charge, he’s focused the organization’s leadership on three primary fronts: higher education, workforce development and global competitiveness.
In some ways, Miller’s interests have moved beyond those issues he was tasked with rectifying initially. Patching up relationships with certain state associations and schools, where CCA officials were said to rarely visit, appears to be in the distant past. Miller’s focus has shifted to broader, big ticket items and longstanding issues that have hampered the career college sector for decades.
Miller’s mission has turned to putting the word out about the benefits of career colleges. Proprietary schools educate an estimated 2.1 million students per year, which undeniably makes them a critical component in the higher education realm.
"In an economic arena that increasingly values technical skills, career colleges need to be viewed for what they are: institutions that graduate a key component integral to continued American success – the middle class," Miller said.
In America, shifting public and governmental views on the sector’s contribution to the labor force might be a struggle. Newspapers nationwide have focused more and more coverage on school closings or FBI raids and less on schools making differences. Career colleges from California to Missouri and Florida have been shut down and are at the center of student-filed lawsuits – and those, too, have attracted negative media coverage.
One of Miller’s initial moves at CCA was to hire a communications team to focus on public relations and revamp the organization’s publications. In fact, the press release CCA issued when Miller was hired made a special point to mention his regular appearances on radio, television and in numerous publications as a spokesperson for key industry issues.
"The (CCA) board has given orders to Harris to essentially take CCA to the next two or three levels so people know what it stands for and what it means," CCA Past Chair Ellis Gedney said. "I don’t think we’ve done an effective job on the PR side in the past. We continue to take hits from Congress and with what’s happening in California, where there’s no legislation pertaining to career colleges. Whenever we go for new legislation, the past is introduced about diploma mills and fraud and abuse. For the most part, that has virtually been eliminated."
Not one to shy away from the public eye, Miller’s leadership and legislation has always been his forte, gleaned from his experience working with local, state and international legislative officials. Through his involvement on various Capitol Hill committees, as President of an international IT association, and as a Democratic senatorial candidate, his resumÃ© demonstrates a commitment to a hands-on approach. And, it doesn’t take him long to prioritize his goals.
"My eye is on the bigger picture evolving in the postsecondary educational market," Miller said. "It’s becoming increasingly evident that American businesses are no longer focused primarily on manufacturing. Today’s marketplace requires service and technical skills, while the workforce demands more options for attaining a degree. Global economic advantage depends upon the creation and maintenance of high-paying jobs within our borders. We must find ways to encourage more young people to pursue technical fields and degrees in postsecondary education."
Miller said he is keenly aware that the issues facing proprietary schools, such as the still-delayed amendments to the Higher Education Act, the 90-10 rule, transferability of credit and single definition, need attention.
He is committed to educating the for-profit college sector leaders on the changing role of today’s career colleges: a tack that led CCA to host its first annual Higher Education Investment Conference in Washington, D.C. One of the most important features of the conference, Miller said, concentrated on how Wall Street analysts and investors view and measure the sector, "a key component of CCA’s mission and a vital commitment to improving the image of the sector."
The PR plan
"Too often, proprietary schools fall through the cracks, getting negative or little attention," Miller said. "The sector hasn’t been getting out into the public, or they are constantly on the defense. When a school can’t stay in business, that becomes the headline, and there’s little equity built up in the media bank, resulting in the whole sector ending up with a bad reputation. The bottom line is proprietary schools aren’t doing a great job of marketing."
In response, Miller is ramping-up communication with schools and owners to articulate the message. He said the public relations campaign will aggressively coordinate a long-term association by consistently educating CCA’s own members. For starters, Miller is forging guidelines that will include topical interactive web casts, point-by-point tools for enhancing media relations, utilization of relevant market research and constructive ways to interface with legislation.
His communication effort is in motion. He has already visited a burgeoning roster of nationwide campuses within the last 10 months. And, as he displayed with one major international newspaper, he isn’t above penning a letter himself to address negative press that recently appeared in a Los Angles Times op-ed piece.
Miller realizes the importance of keeping in step with state and federal legislative policy matters affecting the sector, as shown by the CCA hiring Reba Raffaelli, an attorney with 25 years’ experience in Washington policy and advocacy as a lobbyist.
"Increasing our Washington, D.C., visibility and our efforts in the states is a top priority for the association, and Reba will be a powerful voice for access and affordability in higher education," Miller said.
Navigating through the legislative maze both at the state and federal level is clearly on Miller’s agenda.
For instance, CCA members are encouraged to invite congressional members to tour their school for a firsthand visit. CCA’s newsletters and press releases are filled with governmental briefings pertaining to the sector. Added to information on the association’s Legislative Action Network, advocates for career colleges in Washington and the Political Action Committee, there’s a considerable amount of relevancy for members.
"Bringing state associations together, as we recently did with a 48-state conference in Illinois, disseminates information and builds alliances toward affecting positive legislative change," Miller said.
While drawing upon a host of resources through media relations and political advocacy for the future of proprietary postsecondary education, Miller has remained proactive. Though he has tapped other sources to help in the cause, all eyes within the industry – and without – are fixated on him, the new figurehead for career colleges.
In just one short year, Miller said he believes a wave of optimism has been created. In his next year, it will be readily apparent exactly how far CCA is able to ride that wave.