Published on 2012/11/07

What Higher Education Can Learn from the Private, Not-for-Profit Model

Private, not-for-profit institutions provide students the personalized guidance they need to ensure that they have a positive, successful and rigorous educational experience that makes them want to come back for more.

The following interview is with Eileen Kohan, the Associate Provost and Executive Director of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions at the University of Southern California. In this conversation, Kohan takes a step back to provide her perspective on why private, non-profit institutions are best-suited to serve adult learners, discussing the importance of reputation and student-centeredness.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What qualities do not-for-profit, private institutions have that make them well-suited for adult learners?

Eileen Kohan (EK): Since most adult learners are going back to school to advance their careers; I think number one is reputation, especially for a research university is key. Not only the reputation, but what that reputation connects to in terms of alumni and people who have shared that same academic experience. I think that’s number one.

The second thing is, in the research universities, for the most part you are drawing on faculty that teach in the traditional, undergraduate and graduate programs. So you’re providing access to faculty that have reputations worldwide and you’re learning from the best in their field.

The third thing, I would say, is there’s a learner-centered focus. So basically there’s Student Services and a commitment to student success. There’s resources available to make sure that students advance toward their goals and do it in a timely fashion, whether that’s going for a continuing education course, a certificate program or a Master’s degree.

Finally, I would say class size. Certainly at the University of Southern California, this is a very important component of the learning experience and we feel that class size—the smaller class size—allows for better peer-to-peer interaction as well as interaction with faculty members.

Evo: Can you expand a little bit on the value of that reputation for adult students? When they come out of an institution with a particular name-brand behind them, what advantages does that give?

EK: From the continuing education side, there are people who look at continuing education as a commodity, “I need to learn a skill, I need to learn it yesterday and so there are a lot of places where I can just go and pick that skill up and move forward.”

If you have more of a long-term career plan, and you are really trying to think through what you’re goals are and how best to advance your career, I think that reputation of a school will help you be able to describe your educational experience to the outside world in a very recognizable way because people recognize the institution by reputation.

It will also provide you the connections to folks who have had a similar educational experience. People will recognize that you also have this connection with folks who have also possibly attended that institution.

Evo: What differentiates a not-for-profit, private institution from public institutions and for-profits?

EK: From my perspective, I would say the reputation which we’ve already discussed. The second thing is priorities.

I think that one thing that goes through all of what we do is the academic rigor and academic quality. Whether it’s a continuing education course, whether it’s a webinar, whether it’s a Master’s degree program online, the common thread is going to be the quality of the educational experience, the challenge of the academic experience and the quality of the faculty.

The second thing I would say is the commitment to student success, which I mentioned earlier. That is supported by, usually, folks who are in specific areas that are working and advising and career-advising to help the students meet their academic goals as well as ensure that their career advancement goals are being met.

Evo: What elements of the private, not-for-profit model do you think other types of institutions should look to adopt?

EK: I think you have to look at the student-centered piece and the success focus; making sure that folks who have career goals are meeting those goals in a timely fashion. That because courses aren’t available or faculty aren’t available, someone has to extend the time to complete their particular certificate, course or degree program; I think that personalized aspect.

It’s not just about the money and the revenue you generate from a academic program, it’s about the student and how this advances their career as well as developing loyalty to the institution so that the student comes back multiple times. We’re talking about lifelong learners and we want to develop a lifelong connection to those learners.

We don’t want it to be a one-time, “I need a course for Tuesday.” We want them to need a course that sets them on returning to continually come back to a school like USC at different points of their career to help them move forward.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the value of private, not-for-profit colleges and universities when it comes to serving adult students?

EK: I think the important thing that people have to remember is that we’re in a very changing world, a very changing workplace, so we’re all going to have to be involved in continuing our education. I think we have to look at ourselves and what our value system is and make sure that the institution that provides our educational experience matches our value system. I think that’s key moving forward.

If you get a values match, whether it’s in a private, a public or a for-profit, you’re going to be successful.

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Readers Comments

Dan Jones 2012/11/07 at 1:39 pm

It is true that the goals and priorities of a non-profit and a for-profit institution are radically different, and I do agree with Ms. Kohan’s argument that “reputation” is one thing that sets non-profit apart from for-profit.

I do not agree, however, that for-profit necessarily means poorer academic quality, and I think this is a shortsighted view of the issue. For-profit universities have actually been the most flexible and agile institutions in the higher ed community when it comes to adapting to adult learners, reading the market, and meeting the needs of these learners. The group that Ms. Kohan talks about–adults who want to go back to a prestigious university to upgrade their skills and advance their careers, and who are able to pay for this–is a very small “niche” market within the larger market of adult learners.

The larger and more urgent group is adults who perhaps never attended post-secondary school, who don’t have the means to attend USC, but who need to upgrade their skills to enter an increasingly competitive job market, not only for their own good, but for the good of their country’s economy. This is the big issue that people are talking about and, like it or not, whether you find it “vulgar” or against the principles of “the university”, it is for-profit institutions that are most effectively addressing this issue.

Francis Young 2012/11/07 at 3:04 pm

Dan – I agree that we should not write off for-profit universities entirely, and that we could probably learn a lot from their model, but I do believe one has to be very cautious when dealing with for-profit institutions; one must ask, if profit is their bottom line, how concerned are they with the quality of education and with the student learning experience? Especially if they are often catering to disadvantaged populations, I think there is opportunity for manipulation and misleading marketing strategies for those who don’t do their research.

All this to say: do your research. And I think, as the number of people seeking this particular kind of adult education grows, maybe for-profit institutions would do well to respond to this demand in a learner-focused way by developing: reputation, academic quality, and learner support. I think many of them are already on their way.

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