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Using Data to Strengthen the Student Experience at Proprietary Institutions

The EvoLLLution | Using Data to Strengthen the Student Experience at Proprietary Institutions
Data is central to the work proprietary institutions are doing to meet student expectations in the modern era.

While some forward-thinking public and non-profit colleges and universities experimented with flexible, experimental and student-centered approaches to education in their early days, proprietary institutions were first to the punch. Developing a reputation for focusing on labor market outcomes and strong customer experiences, proprietary institutions have long focused on meeting expectations. But now that the industry has caught up with the example set by these institutions, for the most part, where do the proprietaries go from here? In this interview, Peter Smith shares his thoughts on how proprietary institutions are using data analytics to maintain their position as industry leaders in the student-centered era.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): When a student enrolls at a for-profit institution, what are they often hoping to get out of the experience?

Peter Smith (PS): They’re after two or three things, things that for-profit institutions have done more quickly in the online and blended marketplace of higher education than others.  Most importantly for those modalities, they want the flexibility that online or blended learning gives them so that they can adapt to their work life and their personal life and make a go of it.

They’re also after the very strong connection between institution and career. Older students come back to school for a variety of reasons but the underlying and connective reason has to do with getting a job, changing their job, progressing in a job and having more responsibility and hopefully earning more money.

Evo: You referenced the fact that proprietary institutions were faster at delivering online and blended opportunities. Why couldn’t the public and the non-profit institutions keep pace with that change?

PS: MOOCs changed the industry-wide perception of the value and quality of online learning. Before that, a lot of traditional higher education institutions looked down on online or blended learning because it was new and because they were invested in the way they did business. Fundamentally, the traditional economic model for most institutions involved the campuses themselves and accumulating resources on campuses, then asking people to come to the campus to get what they need.

What’s happened is that that whole model has been pulled inside out by information abundance and the changing public perception of online learning following the beginning of MOOCs.

Evo: How does your team work to ensure you are meeting student expectations?

PS: We have to have great data; we have to know what we’re doing because we have to be able to assure students—as well as accreditors and regulators in the Department of Education and elsewhere—that what we’re doing is not only affordable but also high-quality. We should have the same standard for everybody, especially for all the institutions that are serving previously marginalized students.

We have learned that paying attention to the data you’re generating, and seeing the effect of what you’re doing, and then improving on that work is pretty exciting. It’s exactly what we think all educational institutions ought to be doing.

You’re going to see the most change and improvement in this area over the next three to five years. It’s going to be a non-judgmental way, more heavily focused on helping people know where they are, where they want to go, what it’s going to take to get there, in terms of their education.

The critical thing is the institution must be able and willing to wrap its resources—learning support, faculty, mentoring, all of that—around the learners’ needs. The approach should be us helping students learn what they need to learn as opposed to the more traditional approach of, “We’ve got a degree program, we think it’s what you need, come and do it.” The difference between those two things is entirely in how each option affects students’ attitudes and interactions. Fortunately, today, we have much better information to inform student advising and student conversations.

Evo: Can you provide an anecdote where you and your team had to change the way you were doing something based on data that has lead to measurable improvements in the student experience?

PS: Something we’re engaged in right now is a general repositioning of Kaplan University, based around the notion that a lot of adults leave school because we are asking them to relearn things they already know; whether they learn them in the military or in corporate training.

What happens in most cases is that credits are accepted from other colleges in the military but they are not counted towards the degree. What you’re asking someone to do is to pay you more money and take more time to complete their degree. People are offended by that and they leave, not because they can’t do the work but because they’re smart enough to figure out that they’re not being treated with respect. Now we try to give people a maximum amount of advanced standing based on the learning they’ve already done.

We also collect data from our courses, which allows us to determine whether or not something unsuccessful is happening. We can determine whether an issue stems from a flaw in the curriculum, for example. We can find solutions to issues as well; we can determine if an issue might be improved with more faculty training or if we have some students who are not able to do the work as well as other students in the same situation. Ultimately, we can identify issues and work on finding solutions.

Predictive analytics as well as responsive analytics are a critical part of what we do.

Evo: What are some of the things institutions should be doing to make sure that they understand and meet the expectations of their students?

PS: First of all, in the first two weeks a student is with us, we watch student interaction with curriculum very closely. We know when someone gets off to a weak start in their first couple of courses.

The other thing is to personalize. The connective tissue between all of these things is creating a personalized connection between the individual and the course of study each student is pursuing. A personalized connection doesn’t mean they have a million solutions academically for a million learners. Instead, it means that you’ve helped every learner connect who they are, how they got where they are, where they want to go and why what they’re doing is the best way to get there into their educational experience.

Evo: What are some other ways universities can work to create value for their students?

PS: For colleges and universities, their whole operational structure is based out of a culture of scarce information. The caveat to how you respond to the disruption that is coming because of abundant information, which turns that model upside down, is that every institution has to interpret for themselves and adapt and adopt things that are going to work for them. There is no one size fits all here. Some institutions may make very few changes and be just fine; others may decide to make much greater changes. Anything that the institution does has to be consistent with or reflective of their traditions and histories and brand and the values that they have been bringing to the students through the traditional mode. They now have to find a way to bring those values to new kinds of models.

This interview has been edited for length.

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