Brian Jones was inducted as Strayer University’s 15th president in early December.
(Copyright 2014 Len Spoden Photography.)

It’s been a few weeks since Brian Jones officially took the helm at Strayer University. The new president is stepping into the role as the school pushes against economic headwinds that are rattling the broader for-profit college industry. A steady decline in enrollment has become a financial drag for many for-profit schools, while new government regulations threaten further instability. Marquee industry names, like Education Management Corp., Career Education Corp. and Corinthian Colleges, are closing schools or have folded altogether.

Yet through all of the turmoil, Strayer is managing to stay afloat, steer clear of government lawsuits and even grow enrollment a bit. For the fall term, total enrollment increased by two percent to 42,975 students, reversing years of decline, although the number of new students signing up fell by one percent.

The university offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs in such fields as business administration, information technology and criminal justice online and at 80 campuses in 24 states. It is gaining attention for teaming with major corporations like Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which now covers the cost of a Strayer education for almost all of its car dealers and their families.

It’s the kind of partnership the new president hopes to replicate. Jones, who joined Strayer as general counsel in 2012, has served as interim president for the past few months. Now that he has been sworn in as the school 15th president, Jones shared some of his plans to keep one of the oldest for-profit colleges forging ahead. Here’s an edited version of our conversation:

What’s your vision for Strayer? How do you plan to get the school through what has become a tough environment for for-profit colleges? 

We’re in a stronger position today than we’ve been in for a number of years. For the last two terms, we’ve seen enrollment growth. We’re happy about that, but it’s just one indicator of the institution’s strength. We know that the world of work is changing, so the skill sets and the mindsets that are driving value in the marketplace are changing. There’s a disconnect between what employers are looking for, what the marketplace is demanding and what much of higher ed is producing, not just in our sector. Because of our long heritage of working closely with corporate partners, we have found ourselves in a relatively strong position.

Our students are coming to us with some very practical demands. We largely serve a working adult population that are juggling school, dealing with families and working full-time jobs. Many of them come to us with the idea that “I want to continue my studies or complete my studies with the objective of getting a raise, make more money or change into a different career.” We have students who are returning to the classroom after a long time away. We have the challenge of how do you take a relatively inexperienced student and equip them with all of the tools they’re going to need to be successful in this academic institution, let alone beyond.

We’re very focused on rethinking how we address that early experience for new students who come into the institution. There is of course the challenge of affordability across higher education. We are aware that students make a significant investment to continue their education with us. We’ve also tried to be aggressive about confronting that affordability challenge. A couple of years ago we cut tuition across the board for our new students by 20 percent.

About the same time, we instituted a program that we’re very proud of called out Graduation Fund. It was designed to say look we’re going create an incentive to continuation that also lowers the cost by allowing students to earn credit for free courses. If a student were to come to us with no prior credits, successfully complete those first three years, they would have earned a free fourth year of their education. You take that and combine it with the 20 percent across-the-board cut, and we’ve effectively reduced the costs for some of our students by as much as 40 percent.

What are you doing to help populations of students who haven’t been in the classroom in years?

We believe that coaching is an important part of the experience. Our previous approach really had coaching set outside of the classroom, kind of a separate vertical. You’ve got your classroom experience and separate from that you’ve got your success coach. What we’re testing this term in a few sections is a model that actually has an instructor who serves as both a content instructor as well as a coach for the first year. A lot of these students are coming to us having been outside of the classroom for a while, so let’s create an environment where you’ve got someone who’s providing the instruction, someone who knows the student well, somebody who is engaging with the student regularly. We’re still just testing, so we’ve got a very limited number of instructor coaches. We’re trying to figure out what’s moving the needle in terms of continuation. We haven’t rolled this out across the university yet.

Another approach that we’re testing is cohorting students. Many of our students come to us and can feel a sense of isolation, particularly those studying online. They are not entirely convinced that they belong in the university environment to begin with because they’ve been a way for so long. It can be demoralizing, and sometimes we lose those students. So cohorting would make sure they have a community of students they can rely on as they face they inevitable challenges, who can be peer support.

Another thing we’re looking at is creating more structured pathways for that first year. Rather than a student having an infinite number of choices of courses they might select in that first year, we’d create a very structured pathway so students can be focused on exactly the content they need to get to the second year and be successful. We’re drawing from best practices elsewhere in higher education and trying to figure out the right mix. The bottom line is we’re focused on how to improve the experience for students when they first walk in, trying to build the confidence and make sure they have the skills they need to be successful.

Were you seeing a rising number of students dropping out in their second year? Was there a problem with attrition or graduation rates?

This is common for any institution serving a working adult who is coming into the classroom after time away. Community colleges face the same challenge. So yeah, the challenge is how are we going to equip students to continue from the first year to second year. One of the things that we know from a lot of data analysis is that once a student can successfully get past that first year, their chances of completing increase exponentially.

Any other areas where you feel there is room for improvement?

Yes, and this goes back to those practical demands that we are getting from our students: “Give me the skills that I need to get a promotion or earn more money.” A major challenge for us and a major emphasis for us is career readiness. How are we making sure that our students have the skills and the mindset to hit the ground running in the marketplace. About a year and a half ago, we launched a new initiative called Strayer at Work. That’s where I worked before moving into this role.

It’s essentially a corporate skills development entity that works with large employers focused on discreet roles within the company. If we’re at company X and we’re going to study the international sales team, we want to understand the mindsets that drive the variance between the best sales people in that company and everybody else. Once we understand that, we can develop customized training. What we’re learning we’re bringing into our own institution.

We’re also partnering with companies like Fiat Chrysler to essentially provide their employees access to a college degree at no out-of-pocket cost. In some cases, we are able to provide some customized content that’s relevant to the automotive industry. But most significantly it’s really tackling that affordability problem by partnering with a big company to say, “Look we will work with you to provide a cost efficient solution, one that the company can afford to pay on its own.”

How is Strayer benefiting from these partnerships?

Partnering with a great American employer lets us understand a great deal more about what the market needs, what’s valuable to employers. It allows us to provide a solution to the higher education market, to the larger economy about innovative ways we can make higher education more affordable. And we benefit because we bring serious, strong students into the institution, people who are employed by Fiat Chrysler who have serious jobs. They have ambitions and that’s the kind of student we want to be able to attract.

We’re proud of the innovation, and we are looking to expand these types of programs. We see this as a win-win-win solution. We benefit because we can attract large numbers of high quality students that make us a stronger institution. Fiat Chrysler wins because they’ve got a higher education partner who understands the needs of their business and who is willing to be able to support them and their employees in a way that is relevant. And it’s obviously a win for the student who has access to higher education at no out-of-pocket cost.

How is the gainful employment rule that limits how much debt students amass in career-training programs impacting the school?

I was actually a member of the rule-making committee, representing the industry. We’re proud that when the Department of Education released it’s initial advisory data none of our programs were adversely impacted. I expect that we’ll fully and happily comply as it rolls out.

[Obama administration issues rules to regulate colleges with career-training programs]

In terms of the larger impact on the sector, we remain focused on the career readiness of our students, understanding the needs of employers, staying focused on the quality of the institution and operating with integrity. We keep our heads down doing what we’ve done for 123 years, and that’s served us pretty well.

Where do you see the industry going as it contends with the added scrutiny, regulation and depressed enrollment?

This is a challenging time for all of higher education. I served as general counselor for the Department of Education from 2001 to 2005, and the fact of the matter is higher education is in a different place than it was 10 years ago. And that’s true across sectors. The challenge of affordability, the skills gap issue and whether students are actually getting a meaningful return on their investment are challenges you see across institutions.

There is no question that the for-profit sector in recent years has come under a great deal of scrutiny, and some of that is justifiable. But for us as an institution, we’re not a late comer to this sector. We’ve been around a long time. We’ve  had to adapt to a lot of changes whether it’s technology or how education is funded, accreditation challenges and all the rest. We’ve thrived through all of those transitions across the history of higher education, and I think we’re continuing to do that.

Like a lot of other institutions, we are taking seriously the challenge of affordability, skills preparations and ultimately the return on investment for our students. And that’s what we’re really focused on. If we can continue to forge strong partnerships with companies like Fiat Chrysler, Verizon and others, continue to keep our ears to the ground for what employers are demanding and build that into serving our students well, that ultimately is the pathway through all of the regulatory challenges or any of the rest of it. It’s a model that served us well for a long time, and I have no intention of deviating.

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