Career Colleges Facing Extinction Despite Embracing Change

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By Kevin Kuzma, Online Editor

Newspapers were once the autocratic way we learned about what was happening in our world. They were printed, loaded onto delivery trucks and thrown on our doorsteps every morning with flat thuds that were so heavy with the weight of printed pages on Sunday mornings, the sound sometimes woke us.

I doubt the Sunday paper wakes anyone up anymore. If you still subscribe to the print edition (I’m guessing most of you don’t), the Sunday paper size is a little light.

There are several others examples of industries we thought that could never be toppled facing extinction. Some needed the support of the government to turn things around. Others needed to cope with the evolution of technology and the ways of society changing. People’s preferences and, in some cases, options were enhancing. The industries that reacted swiftly were less damaged than the ones that didn’t. We’ve come to learn that nothing in this millennium is safe, including a realm of higher education whose goal is to supply the American work force with career-specific, skilled labor.

The unthinkable is happening in the higher education today. We are witness to the very beginning of an industry being pushed toward extinction. The career college sector is being replaced with a faulty community college system and it takes some creative vision to see it as the current presidential administration sees it. Leaner, more effective, with a tighter focus, not the tired old man who gets winded on a stumble to the kitchen.

I have been in the professional world for nearly 15 years. My career as a journalist covering career education is already my second up-close experience with an industry that had seen better days. The first was the newspaper industry, which actually has surprising parallels to the struggles of community colleges, as well as traditional colleges and universities.

I was hired as a reporter for The Platte County Sun-Gazette in the summer of 1999. I joined the newspaper about the time that the internet took off. My editor was the stereotypical gruff, prove-it-to me old-time newsroom journalist who despised the digital world. Jack Miles was old school – from the oldest school. If there was a single structure that could represent the old 1930 journalists, then Jack’s school was a one-room schoolhouse of tight copy, never-missed deadlines, and deep-cutting reports that cost people their jobs and created firestorms of controversy.

After I’d accepted the reporting position, he walked me around the strip mall parking lot outside our newspaper office. He talked to me like a concussed quarterback in a huddle – he’d been playing the whole game, battered and bruised, and I’d come in with a second remaining, our team needing a touchdown, and my number getting the call to carry the ball.

Not long after I started, we were told that in addition to writing 8-10 stories a week and designing a full newspaper ourselves, we had to upload all the content onto the interview. We had a conference call with a content expert from an outside company our newspaper had hired to solve our internet dilemma: we had no website. All the reporters in the newsroom were stationed at their computers to learn how to use a content management system to copy and paste the articles into templates that, when published, would become the pages of our website.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a room of people so lost. We were like cats taking a 12-step course on being compassionate. Jack had his own office. He kept the door open and I could hear him typing throughout the call. Not listening. The trainer began by explaining the benefits of placing content online. About 20 minutes into the call, Jack interrupted the trainer. “Can we cut through all of this explanation and get to how we upload content?”

That encounter symbolized for me the colliding of two worlds that could never co-exist. Journalists were as set in their ways then as college professors. Jack was unwilling to embrace the future, as clear as it was. The rest is unfortunate history. Newspapers across the county have shut their doors. Now even The New York Times is deep into cuts to keep its head above water.

Likewise, in the higher education world, we have a war being waged against career colleges. Traditional colleges and universities were slow to pick up online education. Many of them have been even slower to embrace the flexible course scheduling that students find so compelling in the career college sector. But rather than embrace many of the strategies that make career colleges successful, we see an industry condemned for its share of financial aid dollars.

The odd part is that the sector in jeopardy is the one that has adapted to changing times. Competition keeps career colleges nimble and willing to embrace innovation. While we teach our children in K-12 to be critical thinkers, our traditional college leaders encourage the opposite – not in lecture halls, necessarily, but from those handling the operation of their institutions.

Career colleges have been cast out. The Obama administration would rather overhaul another failing entity – community colleges – than run with a  sector that has proven to be adept. Proven to understand what today’s students want. Proven to be able to withstand change. Now, the sector will have to prove it again.