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Higher Education Includes Career Education

The pandemic may have shaken up the higher ed vision, but the mission remains clear: delivering the best student experience that fits the needs of the wide demographic of non-traditional learners. 

With the disruption the pandemic has caused, institutions were left scrambling to get classes online and reshape their infrastructure to fit a more digital environment. Fortunately for Keiser University, they already had an online infrastructure in place to help them make that quick shift. It may have shaken things up, but they didn’t lose sight of their mission: the students. Having a student-centered philosophy, the university continues to find ways to deliver what their students and local employers need. In this interview, Joseph Sallustio and Elizabeth Leiba from EdUp Experience speak to Art Keiser about Keiser’s philosophy on students, accreditation as institutions pivot online and the future of short-term programming at Keiser. 

EdUp Experience: How have you been responsive to students during this pandemic, and what advice do you have for other schools to be nimble in the online environment?

Art Keiser (AK): At Keiser University, we started our online programs in 1998, so with the pandemic, we were able to use our online framework and platform as the basis of all of our on-campus classes. Students were able to connect with instructors, communicate via email, check their grades and attendance records and see all postings. If they’re required outside of the class, they go on to the online library system. But that was done before we even had the COVID-19. So when COVID-19 struck, our students and faculty had much experience with the online system.

We were all fairly prepared to go completely online. All of the course materials we had in our online infrastructure could be transferred to our on-campus online programs. We even have a better retention rate now than when we did this time last year. 

EdUp Experience: Where did your student-centered mentality come from?

AK: When I was a teaching assistant at the University of Florida, my boss told me that the job was great if it wasn’t for the students. And that really bothered me. Our job is to help students succeed. We fail when we fail a student. We wanted to have two things right when we started Keiser: first, an entrance requirement. We measured and benchmarked what knowledge students needed, and we cross-referenced it with their test scores. We’ve never done open enrollment. We always had about a 30% rejection rate. And they’re all different based on the course and the program. If the student can’t succeed or is going to be struggling too much, it hurts the rest of the class. Our job is to make students successful. If the class environment is disruptive, it can’t be successful.

The second thing we value is the idea that if you take care of students, they’ll take care of you. We have to push the students to their limit and then back off one inch. Those students who are pushed hard but not excessively will learn and without getting bored. They’re going to want to be successful.

When we make decisions and policies, some of them are very strict. We have a dress code and attendance requirements, and many colleges today don’t have that. If a student doesn’t show up, we reach out to them to show that we care about their presence. That gives them the strength to overcome the obstacles that they face–because most of our students are adult learners. 64% of our students have dependents, 48% are married, and 83% of them work. Consequently, they are challenged to balance all of those responsibilities. We have to make it worthwhile for them.

EdUp Experience: What work are you doing at the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI)? 

AK: I’m an advocate and student of accreditation. For me, accreditation is a really important part of what I do in ensuring the tier review system,  rather than a ministerial oversight of higher education.

The NACIQI, an advisory committee to the Secretary of Education, is appointed by both the House, Senate and Secretary. The members review accrediting agencies—we are the accreditor of accrediting agencies, so to speak. And we review them to make sure that they meet the requirements set forth by the federal government, to ensure the protection of the federal government’s dollars invested in higher education.

EdUp Experience: Is there disruption among accreditors and NACIQI in how you’re looking at oversight since universities are having to pivot online?

AK: Congress established rules for institutions to adopt online educational experiences. COVID-19 created a new environment to which people had to adjust. And many institutions weren’t prepared. It is sad because an effective online program is not just logging onto Zoom and watching your teacher lecture for two hours before giving you assignments to turn in. It’s a much more involved, intricate, and complex process.

The government has given a lot of freedom for institutions to meet students’ requirements and not much for assessment. Some institutions weren’t prepared to move online or to embed their learning resources into their programs, which really make them engaging and effective for students. Until COVID-19 passes, there’s a great strain on our ability to deliver the quality we like to see, so it is a challenge. 

To the accreditors, I have to give credit. They’ve been extremely flexible in this emergency situation and have basically given institutions the opportunity to go to online without getting formal review and assessment processes that would have been required by the government without the emergency.

EdUp Experience: Do you foresee a convergence of for-profit and non-profit education with increased competition?  

AK: I do believe there’ll be a change. We’ve exposed tens of millions of students to a different experience, one that fits many more people’s needs. Traditional students are going to college for a different reason than adult learners, but adult learners are the majority of the students in this country. Traditional students want that college experience, but adult learners are looking for a flexible online experience. The one thing they’ll find, though, is that online is not necessarily cheaper than on-campus education. 

A good online experience has the same basic expenses as an on-campus one. If done right, online education is a full-time experience, and as such, it’s just as expensive as on-campus classes.  

Beyond that, you could do hybrids, so you can have on-campus and off-campus learning both built intoyour educational experience. That way, you can have the best of both worlds. We’re not limited to online or campus. We can have both.

EdUp Experience: What’s next for Keiser University in the next five to 10 years?

AK: We’re going to continue staying close to our mission, which is to provide career education. That’s the key to motivating students. We’ll be adding new careers and programs as the world changes. Between artificial intelligence, electronic simulators, and virtual reality, we see that becoming a significant part of our educational experience. 

We’ve been really good at adding graduate programs, and we’ll continue to do that. We’ll be filling in niches and needs where society dictates it. Nursing and technology are both hugely in-demand areas by both industry and society. 

It’s about balancing the fear of change with pressing professional needs–and the constant unknowing of what the future will bring. We have to change, but at the same time, we don’t want to get our skis crossed because we moved too quickly. We want to make sure that we are meeting employers’ needs. We do a lot of work with employers and industry leaders to understand where the market’s going. And we’ll not get in front it but rather follow it along. 

EdUp Experience: What is your philosophy on short-term programs and how did that kick start the creation of the Southeastern College division within Keiser University?

AK: A career college like Southeastern plays a critical role. There are so many levels of a career that don’t require an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Since we want to invest so much in graduate schools, investments haven’t been made in vocational-tech schools and career colleges. There are shortages in the trades, so when you do hire someone in those fields, it’s expensive. There’s a need for those institutions. You can’t ignore the need for these jobs, and if we don’t recognize that we need shorter programs to fill them, that’s a very serious mistake for our society.

EdUp Experience: What does the for-profit sector have to do to survive and thrive moving forward?

AK: They need to come to the realization that they live in a political world. They can’t be an ostrich and stick their head in the ground and expect things to happen in their favor. The anti for-profit sentiment is political. It’s not based on facts or science but on the competition for students. The demographics for traditional education are shrinking. Low unemployment rates put huge pressure on schools to find students. And it’s interesting if you look at the higher education bill. So much effort is placed on putting negative issues with the for-profits that they tend to ignore the rest of higher education and K-12 for that matter.

Career colleges need to nvest in the political process because their funding is based upon it. If they don’t wake up and support the national association and their local representatives, they are potentially a troubled sector of higher education. It’s a very active process, and you have to be involved.

EdUp Experience: How has Keiser established a guiding philosophy around faculty and student relationships and what advice do you have for others who are looking to foster that positive connection?

AK: The critical relationship-building between faculty and students is what makes, motivates, and keeps students involved in their education. Education’s difficult; it’s something that goes into your system, and hopefully you take stuff out of it. It is the students’ responsibility to learn, but a good faculty member–one who’s committed to their students–is the difference in opening up the student’s desire to learn.

For us as an institution, we want to make sure that when we hire, we hire people with a passion for their industry, for teaching, and for their students. That’s what makes a school different. If I was a student, that’s what I’d be looking for. 

EdUp Experience: What do you think the future of higher education is going to look like particularly in a post COVID-19 world?

AK: The future is still good. There will be a need for educational institutions that provide structure and platform for students to learn. Now that platform may become increasingly multimedia, both on campus and in the online environment. Whether it be hybrid, online or even in the classroom, using social media and all kinds of different devices to make the material to more interesting, exciting and usable for students. Public education is going to have to readjust because these large campuses built all over the country will shrink along with their enrollments. Institutions in the private sector that adapt to the changing environment will continue to grow.

EdUp Experience: Is there anything you’d like to add about Keiser University and your success there?

AK: We work every day to help our students. It’s hard, especially in the COVID-19 world. So, to the students: be patient. This will pass. If it hadn’t happened so quickly, a lot of the challenges they’re facing would not be as great. The fact that it’s continuing and not leveling off makes it difficult for us to plan for the future. Everyone needs to be patient. Everyone needs to work together and keep learning, keep teaching to make sure that when it’s time to go back to campus, we’re going to deliver a great experience. 


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Listen to the full interview here. 

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