Jeri Prochaska’s idea came about almost as an afterthought one day five years ago. The career college sector was in a desperate place at that time, feeling the bare brunt of the Obama administration’s regulatory scrutiny and the related fallout of a negative public relations storm.
Almost daily, it seemed, the Department of Education rolled out new or augmented rules targeting career schools just as complex as they were lengthy. Some of the longest-standing brands in career education were either prepping to shut down or already shuttered given the promised impact of the department’s Gainful Employment rule.
Into this bleakness stepped Prochaska, a 25-year career school veteran who worked for Career Education Corporation and Spartan. She decided she wanted to help career schools take a stand.
“Watching career college students graduate has always been my passion—my heart,” she said. “Sometime around 2013 I felt like there was a lot of misunderstanding about our sector, especially in Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois where politicians such as Senator Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) were on the offensive. Those states had no representation, so they were easy targets. There was no one out there to say, ‘Hey, you’re wrong about us.’”
At the urging of Russell “Wicker” Freeman, owner of Coyne College in Chicago, Illinois, Prochaska began developing an idea for a state association-like organization that would help career colleges gather and decipher the information they needed to survive in the stringent regulatory environment.
Her first call was to Tom Netting, a well-known name in career education who has fought for career schools in the public policy arena.
“I called Tom and he loved the idea,” Prochaska said. “He thought it was great and we bonded immediately. He said let’s put this together and give it a try. So we began talking to other school leaders and they thought it was awesome, too. This really all came to be because no one said no to me or Tom.”
That’s how Central States Private Education Network (CSPEN) began taking shape—through a network of phone calls to career college leaders throughout the nation. Call after call, Prochaska and Netting received positive reactions, and it went on that way until they had a board of directors formulated and a loosely written mission.
CSPEN’s initial mission was to be an information-gathering source for career colleges and to help them interpret how new or potential rules and legislation might affect them. Five years later, the organization’s mission remains nearly the same.
“When schools were being attacked, they simply weren’t getting the information, or they weren’t able to read what they were given,” Prochaska said. “Tom has this amazing skill of being able to get the information before anyone else does and he is able to interpret it in ways school owners can understand. We became focused on information gathering and information sharing. We wanted to remain very nimble so we can deliver whatever career colleges need most.”
With schools located throughout the United States, today CSPEN schools educate tens of thousands of students throughout hundreds of specialized career training-oriented programs. Last month, CSPEN hosted its fourth annual conference. Attendees from 41 states descended on Chicago to participate in learning sessions covering the negotiated rulemaking process and current rules being considered by the Department of Education.
CSPEN does not have members, given its 501(c)(3) status. Instead, it has donors. The current list of donors includes West Virginia Junior College, Valley Colleges, Northcentral College, Broadview University, Ancora, Centura/AIM, and many more.
CSPEN is striving not to infringe on existing state associations or member groups for career colleges. As an example, Prochaska said CSPEN invited Gena Wikstrom, longtime executive director of the Northwest Career Colleges Federation, to be a member of the CSPEN board of directors. Wikstrom’s association has successfully been a partner and resource for schools in that region of the country for years.
“Our hope is to continue serving schools in any way that they need,” Prochaska said. “To do that, we have to be nimble as an organization and stand together as a sector.”
For more information about CSPEN, visit www.centralstatesedu.com.