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Transformational ECM V: For-Profit Education (Part 1)

April 21, 2011

Before my recent foray into the world of Advanced/Adaptive Case Management, I was in the middle of a series on organizational transformation that focused on how enterprise content management (ECM) should be seen less in terms of technology, process, compliance, or risk management, and instead as a powerful force for transformational change at organizations.

In those posts, I took a close look at how ECM is transforming a range of industries: health payers, mining companies, consumer packaged goods (CPG) organizations, property and casualty/life insurers, and financial services organizations.

Now that I’ve emerged from the other side of the ACM looking-glass, in this post, I’ll return to considering how ECM can transform industries.

To that end, I want to turn to an industry that’s been growing like gangbusters in the last few years: for-profit education. Led by firms like Apollo and Kaplan, it’s been transforming the face of higher education in the U.S. and across the globe. But with that growth come some substantial challenges, and as we’ll see, ECM can help these firms meet them.

But before we get to ECM, let’s take a closer look at the for-profit ed market.

Going to hell in a hand basket

Ask anyone who’s been in higher ed for any amount of time and they’ll gladly tell you: for-profit ed is the scourge of the earth.

First, it grew out of the distance education movement—getting a degree by taking a computer course…really? And as if that’s not bad enough, it totally decouples the content of the curriculum (which is created by corporate curriculum managers) from the people who deliver it, thereby shifting the balance of power at the university from faculty to administrators in a big way.

If I were a professor (and I used to be one), I’d be less-than-thrilled about the rapid growth of the for-profit model over the last 6-7 years. It’s a whole new world in higher ed, and most professors aren’t too pleased about their place in that world.


Looking at it from the point of view of for-profit education providers (and I used to work for one), scourge of the earth is a bit uncharitable. Their perspective is that the landscape of higher ed in the U.S. is evolving due to profound changes within and around our colleges and universities.

  • The profile of the typical college student has changed radically. Graduating high-school and immediately spending the next four years living on campus taking classes full-time is no longer the norm—not even close to it. Most students balance work and school (full-time work, not a work-study job in the library ten hours a week), family responsibilities and school, or both.
  • The pool of those aspiring to go to college has changed radically. It used to be that a G.E.D. was your ticket to a good job; now a B.A. seems to be the minimum bar, and many employers are looking for post-graduate work on top of it for what used to be fairly straightforward white-collar jobs. This has driven a huge spike in the sheer number of folks looking to go to colleges and universities…with the result that you likely couldn’t get into the school you once went to: as the number of applicants increase, so too the bar to enter.
  • The cost structure of the traditional college/university is not sustainable over the long-term. It’s no secret that the cost of a college education has risen out of all proportion to what anyone could have ever expected. As the father of a four-year-old, I don’t even want to guess what the current rate of tuition increases might make college costs look like for her. And although no one really has a solution, what is clear to everyone is that this can’t continue, either for consumers or for universities.
  • The market dynamics for community colleges and regional liberal-arts schools has changed radically. Given the intense pressure to raise costs in conjunction with the changes in student profile, many smaller, regional colleges are at risk of outright failing…which will further intensify the pressure on remaining institutions to service the ever-expanding pool of aspiring college and university students.

Enter for-profit ed

These realities create optimal conditions for for-profit education providers to flourish. Increased demand, flat-to-declining supply, existing providers on the ropes and ripe for acquisition, and the market incumbents operating with either ridiculous margins (aka gouging) or ridiculous inefficiencies. There’s just no way that private business wasn’t going to jump in here eventually: big opportunities and big money waiting for someone to capitalize on them.

That’s the materialistic dimension. But there’s another: changing lives.

Talk to anyone who works at Apollo or Kaplan, and you’ll hear lots about how the traditional university system, while it has worked for a long time and continues to work for many students, fails many other students. Once called non-traditional students, I would bet that these working parents, live-at-home commuters, return-to-college professionals, and part-time students make up at least 40% of the total college population these days (somebody keep me honest with a real statistic if you have it…).

It’s precisely these folks that for-profit ed providers target. And on their websites, in their offices, at their trade shows and public-facing events, you’ll see very inspiring stories about how their new modes of structuring and delivering education have allowed these millions of non-traditional students to change their lives in ways that wouldn’t have been possible in the traditional university system.

A pause for the cause

So much for the set up. In the next post, now that we’ve got a baseline appreciation for the context of the for-profit ed market, we’ll turn to the content management challenges and opportunities for-profit ed providers face and how better ECM can help them transform.

In the meantime, would love to hear from folks out there: what do you all think about for-profit ed? Scourge or savior? Have you taken classes or even gotten a degree from one? What was the experience like? Are you involved in higher ed and have thoughts on my take on it? Whatever the reason, jump in and let’s get the conversation started!

One Comment leave one →
  1. Matt Roberts permalink
    April 27, 2011 11:32 am

    The biggest issue I see in choosing an education is lack of education. If you have decided to get higher education it is easy to “sign up online,” “got to class in your pajamas,” and “choose your schedule.” In the end though you have spent your money and time on a degree that does not hold much weight, and that is if you even graduate, I would be curious to see what the drop out rate is.
    The school still makes money.
    When I decided to go back to school (after 15 years) I did it with a lack of education, but I decided to dive in head first. What I found was The Ohio State College has an Access program for non-traditional students that not only provides tuition assistance but also a vital support group.
    I can only assume colleges across the country are following suit.
    There is a big market out there for people with jobs and families. Online colleges are just cashing in on the average American’s laziness. As a human being I am angered by their greed, as a business major I’m impressed at their model… kinda conflicted there! In the end though, any money made by taking advantage of ignorance is bad money, and if that thought will make me a bad business man than so be it!
    Looking back, I dodged a bullet going to the more challenging looking school, my lack of eduction did not cause me to fall into the online school trap. And I think in the future you will see more and more private and public colleges tempting the non-traditional.
    My question to you… Is there any chance non-profit schools will utilize ECM? Or is ECM just about making more money? I guess I’m curious why you chose the for-profit arm of education.
    Interesting side note I learned about college…You can even got to class in your pajamas if you want.
    Say hi to the family for me!

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