Cautionary Tales, Ripped from the Headlines

Two items in today’s news serve as cautionary tales for all of us working in the education sector. The first, of course, is about the university admission bribery scandal now engulfing a number of marquee-name institutions. While no great surprise–perhaps only in that someone finally got caught–such behavior on the part of striving parents and unscrupulous middle men makes sense given the inordinate (and, we believe, unfounded) importance many attach to elite university acceptance. Raise the stakes high enough and unethical and illegal behavior will follow. It always has and always will. Maybe this will force some in the industry to finally examine the tacit complicity between universities, admissions advisors, and parents to perpetuate a myth.

The second is the lesser-followed story of the Argosy University demise. Argosy, a multi-state, for-profit school focusing narrowly on degree preparation for specific fields of work (psychology prominent among them) should be a shining example of the beneficial effects of bringing big business into higher education. Instead, like others before, Argosy is leaving its students scrambling to find other schools willing to accept them and, eventually, confer degrees based in part on work already done.

The university admission scandal harkens back to the Sanford Weill and 92nd Street YMCA preschool debacle, and is a terrific example of the toxic effect greed, anxiety and plutocracy brings to life. Unfortunately, what this iteration illustrates is that, unlike the title of the NY Times article in 2002, this is not a uniquely New York story. The Argosy story illustrates why the culture of for-profit business fits education so poorly. When Circuit City collapsed, electronics consumers could go down the street to Best Buy or Micro Center with only a minor inconvenience (the same, though, could not be said about employees). Argosy’s students are left scrambling with much higher stakes.

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Good Ideas Aren’t Always Enough

This cautionary tale about the University of Texas – Austin from the Chronicle of Higher Education contains a terrific set of lessons learned. Good material for change leaders in academia everywhere (as well as those who think change comes easy in the education sector).

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Bringing School Closer to Work Lowers Friction in Parenthood

Friction points are the places in life where people encounter a bottleneck or resistance en route to a goal. Waiting for a call-back after leaving a message with an automated phone attendant is a friction point. So is having to leave or skip work to pick up one’s child at a certain hour, say, 5 pm, when the workday doesn’t end until 6 pm.

“Coworking spaces that have revolutionized the traditional 9-to-5 are turning their attention to the full-time job of parenting.“

—From J Walter Thompson

This item from J Walter Thompson’s newsletter on travel and lifestyle trends describes how WeWork and other co-working operators are removing at least some of the friction inherent in parenthood. Called WeGrow, by combining workspaces with school spaces, this model appeals to today’s growing mass of flexible and gig economy workers. Read the description—the educational model closely resembles what we see on many private, independent school websites. Is this a formidable new competitor? Maybe, but we also see an opportunity for schools, especially those that can credibly claim superior educational expertise. What do you see?

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Limits to Nichification?

This news about the closing of Green Mountain College in the American state of Vermont shows that even a well-honed market niche is not always the path to financial viability. Green Mountain built distinctiveness around environmental sustainability to the point of winning nationally acclaim for this niche, yet in the end was unable to translate this into enough paying customers to sustain the school.

Maybe some schools are beyond saving. Maybe we need a way to recognize and respond to this eventuality before things become so dire that students only have a few months notice before closure—a hospice program of sorts for educational institutions.

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Gen Alpha is Here! Are You Ready?

Even as the Millennial generation makes its way into independent school admission offices with their toddlers in tow, marketers tell us that Generation Alpha (their kids) are already a formidable part of buying and selling everything. This article in Ad Age is both instructive and terrifying.

“[A] way to reach Alpha kids—and their parents’ wallets—is to tap into a rising crop of child influencers who have their own Instagram pages and YouTube channels with subscriber counts well into the millions.

“The kingpin is Ryan, a 7-year-old boy from Texas who has been doing online toy reviews since he was a 4-year-old. His YouTube channel, Ryan ToysReview, now approaches 18 million subscribers. Ryan, whose last name is undisclosed to protect his privacy, first began posting reviews, but has since expanded into science experiments and games. Neither Ryan nor his parents returned a request for comment.

“‘The new biggest celebrity to a kid is not Michael Jordan anymore, it’s Ryan ToysReview, [their] favorite YouTuber,” says Julia Moonves, VP of sales and business development at Pocket.watch, a Los Angeles-based startup that partners with young influencers on content and product development.”

Will “child influencers” come to drive school enrollment decisions made by parents? Maybe they already do well outside our awareness.

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Lessons in Survival from Small Colleges

A Chronicle of Higher Education piece by Lawrence Biemiller describes the paths several small, liberal arts colleges are taking to find financial sustainability. The plight of such schools is well-known, but my take-away from the article is that five practices underscore the more successful transformations:

  1. Increasing the speed at which decisions, even about matters such as curriculum, are made; this is true even in domains that require significant faculty input or consent;
  2. Stopping programs, no matter how beloved, that pulled down the bottom line; e.g., no margin means no mission;
  3. Reducing faculty positions, one of the most painful, but ultimately helpful, of the strategies;
  4. Benchmarking private school tuition at the same level as the flagship campus of the state’s public university (this required re-engineering the budget to hit the price point, as illustrated by Oglethorpe University and Sweet Briar College); and
  5. Changing pedagogical approaches to emphasize project-based and experiential learning (remember our post in this space that everything is progressive now).

Also notable is mention of a consortium among Amherst, Mt. Holyoke, Smith, Hampshire, and UMass at Amherst (all in Massachusetts) to reduce expenses by shared services.

All of the above are interesting case studies for smaller independent K-12 schools.

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