To the Front of the Line

Months after purchasing the Penn Foster Education Group, a for-profit career training provider, the Princeton Review is entering the distance education market by teaming up with community colleges to offer fast-track allied health-care programs to students who are willing to pay higher tuition to bypass long waiting lists. While the college pioneering the system sees the move as providing an important new option, some faculty members are calling the idea a cash grab that taints the traditional community college commitment to equity.

The Princeton Review will pilot this new public-private initiative at Bristol Community College, in southeastern Massachusetts. By this fall, the partnership will expand the enrollment capacity of the community college’s programs in general health science, medical information and coding, and massage therapy. Eventually, it will expand to offer further space in the college’s nursing and radiologic technology programs.

The programs offered will primarily be online, but the Princeton Review will also provide a new space near the college for students to take lab and in-person supplements to their courses. The program will use Bristol’s accreditation and instructors. Other than the fact that these programs are being offered online, the only difference between these programs and Bristol’s current allied health care programs – which the college will maintain with waiting lists – is that students who wish to take the programs sponsored by the Princeton Review will have to pay more in tuition.

“Many community colleges have long waiting lists for programs in the health care fields and they don’t have capacity to meet this current demand,” said Michael Perik, president and CEO of the Princeton Review. “The idea was simple. If we provided capital and marketing and distance learning assistance to a college, could they attract people to a fast-track type program where students can get off the waiting list immediately and graduate in two years? The only catch is that they have to pay a slightly differentiated tuition. I think older students, in particular, understand the opportunity cost of something like this and that waiting a few years just isn’t valuable to them.”

A full year at Bristol, taking 15 credit hours per semester, costs $3,750. Bristol officials were unable to say how much more a year in one of the new programs would cost. They were also unable to estimate how much they would eventually have to pay the Princeton Review for their goods and services to expand the capacity of these programs.

Still, officials from the Princeton Review make no bones about the fact that they expect to turn a profit from the deal. They believe this public-private model positions the programs between the face-to-face programs at the community college and those at the on-demand and high-tuition proprietary institutions with which they will now compete.

“Think of us as a service provider,” Perik said. “They teach, and they have complete academic control of the program. We find out what the barriers are to meeting the demand for that program, and they get access to our services and capital to overcome them. They’ll pay a variable rate based on the return of the expanded programs. We expect to make a profit from this. At the core of this is the differential tuition model. To be able to get into this program and off the waiting list, you’ll have to pay more in tuition. We’re treating this as a business, so we’ll need an economic model that works. But, you can have a good business without making 30 points on a student, which is what most for-profits typically are making.”

Bristol officials say the expanded capacity in these high-demand programs is essential. John J. Sbrega, president of the community college, noted that the college received about 1,000 applicants for its 72-student nursing program last year. In addition to limits within current facilities, the college also has had a hard time attracting nursing instructors. For example, Sbrega noted that the chair of the nursing department has been open for nearly two years and that many candidates have turned the position down because of its low pay compared to that of a job at a nearby hospital.

As current allied health professors only have classes during the day, Sbrega said the college will try to use them to teach the new online programs and run their labs at night. Still, he said he expects to have to hire more adjunct faculty, likely from other institutions, to help fully staff the new program.

Faculty union representatives, however, have major reservations about the program. Joe LeBlanc, president of the Massachusetts Community College Council, a unit of the National Education Association, said the college has not come to an agreement with the union as to how much full-time professors will make for taking on these extra courses. He noted that Bristol is not offering as much as the professors would like for the work. Also, more generally, LeBlanc said he has a concern with what he called the "explosion" of the use of part-time faculty at Bristol, where he noted the part-time to full-time ratio was nearly four to one. He argued that the new program will not help this imbalance.

Aside from disagreements concerning pay, faculty also have philosophical concerns with the concept, arguing that it may disadvantage some students in ways that are not appropriate for community colleges.

"This strikes me as unfair — for other students to be going to a public college and jumping to the front of the line just because they’re paying more," LeBlanc said. "This [deal] came out of the blue, and it was made quite clear that [Bristol] was hungry to pursue this. It looks like they’re just planning to jump ahead. But we’d like to slow this down ever so slightly. There may be a lot of good reasons for Bristol to do this, but we need to take a pause before we think about doing these elsewhere in the state. Everything is motivated by this ‘growth is all’ mindset. We really need to pause and take stock of what we’re thinking about doing here."

Princeton Review and Bristol officials, however, are ready to move ahead with the project in spite of some of these criticisms.

“In this age of scarce resources and burgeoning enrollments, we’re just not going to get money from our state,” Sbrega said. “I think public-private partnerships like this one are the wave of the future. This is an outstanding example of what can be done through these partnerships. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s replicated around the state and the country.”

The Princeton Review is currently in discussions with other community colleges in Massachusetts and in four other states to replicate this model if it proves successful. Sbrega also said he would like to see something similar put in place for other career-related programs at his institution for which there are long waiting lists.


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