Tim Foster

Given the extraordinary regulatory and political challenges facing career education, what improvements/innovations does the sector need to implement to remain a leader in higher education?

Our marketing and admissions processes are undergoing dramatic change, not just because of the regulatory environment but also as the result of changing market behaviors. Just seven years ago, fewer than 20 percent of our incoming students compared schools before making their decision. In days gone by, students typically enrolled in the school that first contacted them. Today, more than 80 percent of our students compare three or more schools before enrolling. As a result, we are all moving away from direct response and toward brand awareness marketing. Overlay the program integrity imperative on the marketing trend, and it is obvious that real transparency in our program offerings is paramount to the brand experience we build. Transparency, of course, is the clear, concise and complete communication of everything a prospective student needs to make an informed decision. Admissions personnel will not be motivated to achieve transparency for the sake of compliance. No one wants to memorize a list of things to say and things not to say. But, our teams will engage in an effort to differentiate their school by truly earning students’ trust. Trust is a competitive advantage in career education today, and its benefits outweigh the imperfections we disclose in its pursuit. If not, we have to fix the imperfections – not diminish transparency. Accept that argument, and innumerable innovations must follow.

Please explain the innovations you’ve brought to (or observed in) career education. What led you to recognize the need for these innovations? What has been their impact on students and higher education?

At our schools, two innovations come to mind. The first is an online training course administered to the majority of our staff. The course empowers admissions, financial aid and career services staff to achieve transparency in a practical, everyday manner through exposure to real-world scenarios. Yes, the course spells out federal, state and accreditor regulation pertaining to communications with prospective students, and it details the consequences of violation. But our real objective is transparency for the sake of trust. Another innovation is our “tour tablets.” As we all know, when you are offering, say, seven programs on a campus, there’s a great deal of disclosure and representation information that needs to be accessible during an interview or tour. We are placing that information on a digital tablet that must be carried by anyone (including me) conducting an interview or giving a tour. The tablets of course, are miked and the audio can be accessed real-time or recovered from a hard drive. The training material we generate is excellent, and the technology allows our internal audit team to review tours and interviews (including financial aid) after the fact. We anticipate this will allow us to phase out “secret shopping” a process with unavoidable human failings (just ask the U.S. GAO).

What quality about career colleges or their students motivates you personally?

It’s tough not to sound clichéd when answering a question about personal motivation in career education. When you make a living supporting people who are changing their lives, you become spoiled. There’s nothing else quite like it. As I walk through the halls of a well-run campus, I can literally feel the buzz, the collaboration, the community, the rising tide of self-esteem that fills the space. I don’t get to do it enough. It usually takes me an hour to calm down after I climb back into the car.

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