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Can This Tiny Career College Really Become ‘America’s Work-Force Partner’?

August 14, 2018

The following article is from The Chronicle of Higher Education

I'm Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education covering innovation in and around academe. For more than two years, I've been curating the weekly Re:Learning newsletter. Now I'll be using it to share my observations on the people and ideas reshaping the higher-education landscape. Subscribe here. Here's what's on my mind this week:

Can this tiny career college really become 'America's work-force partner'?

On its first go-round operating what it called "the largest nonprofit career-college system in America," ECMC Group didn't win many fans. That's putting it mildly.

Now, with a new chief executive who spent his first year on the job studying the career-training landscape, a much-reduced footprint of campuses, and a student population that is minuscule compared with three years ago, the system is preparing to rise again.

Done right, the reboot could create a powerful new national model for postsecondary education's role in work-force training.

Given the history, I'm not foolish enough to predict how this will go. ECMC is the nonprofit organization that took ownership of 56 Corinthian Colleges campuses in January 2015 and was later faulted for failing to root out some of the for-profit-college company's misleading marketing practices, especially in its early years of running the colleges.

But after spending time this month with ECMC's chief executive, Jeremy J. Wheaton, in Minneapolis (before the Minnesota eLearning Summit I wrote about in last week's newsletter), I am convinced that the organization at least has some compelling ideas on the drawing board.

First, it's keeping its scope focused: The rechristened Altierus Career College system will continue to offer programs at the certificate and associate levels, where Wheaton sees the greatest needs and the fewest other nationwide players.

He also envisions a system that is less based on big physical locations, which can be expensive to operate, and more designed around curricula that could be taught at students' workplaces. He's also looking to offer curricula designed to involve students' employers as mentors.

ECMC created its Zenith Education subsidiary to operate the campuses it had purchased from Corinthian, which had been crippled when the Education Department withheld financial-aid payments. Late in 2017, ECMC announced it would close 21 of the 24 Corinthian campuses, known as Everest and WyoTech, that it had kept open. Even those campuses were too big, Wheaton says, and in the wrong places. They also were costly for ECMC: A good share of the $500 million it spent over the past three years as it wound down Corinthian's legacy operations went toward paying off leases on underused and shuttered campuses.

The days of "stamping out 40,000- to 60,000-square-foot facilities" are over, Wheaton says.

The three locations it is keeping are outside of Atlanta, in Houston, and in Tampa, Fla. Altierus expects soon to introduce about eight new programs in those locations — in IT, health care, and the trades — in the hope of more than doubling the overall student population to a self-sustaining enrollment of about 1,500 by the end of 2020.

Beyond that? In Altierus's next iteration, Wheaton expects a lot more of its offerings will be developed for online delivery, perhaps augmented by smaller locations, scattered around the country, that would operate as service centers for students. (The University of Phoenix toyed with a version of this idea about 10 years ago, but as with a lot of its ideas, it didn't do much with it.) Wheaton thinks the physical spaces matter. "People still take comfort in knowing that somewhere, there is a brick-and-mortar facility," he says.

Some of these ideas might not have been practical even a few years ago. But changes in the broader economy, and in employers' attitudes, now make them more so, Wheaton believes. He notes, for example, that employers have become a lot more accepting of online education, even in fields like culinary education, where he worked immediately before he landed the ECMC job. (His experience as president of the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, which I first encountered at a for-profit-college convention in 2013, also seems to have influenced his enthusiasm for shorter educational offerings.)

Wheaton also believes employers' need for skilled workers — at least in this stage of the business cycle, when job vacancies are hard to fill — makes them more willing to collaborate with education providers that bring them creative options, like on-site training.

Still, why am I paying attention to a system that has been criticized for its handling of the Corinthian takeover (see here) and has managed to attract just 700 new students while it teaches out its final 700 from Corinthian?

Part of the reason is that ECMC Group can bring an array of resources to the table. The organization has assets of more than $1 billion, proceeds from its years as a student-loan guarantee agency and loan collector. It has a philanthropic arm that expects to make grants of $40 million next year, and so has the ability to study the kinds of support that will work best for different kinds of students. And it has an investment arm that can provide capital to companies that might be developing new tools or technologies that Altierus could use in its educational programs. (At the moment, Wheaton is on the lookout for tools that employ virtual reality, which could be used for online teaching in the medical fields and the trades.)

All that, plus the blank slate, makes Wheaton confident that Altierus, despite its tiny size now, can attract a high-caliber leader (he was preparing to interview the last of three finalists the day after we met) who can help turn it, and Zenith, into "America's work-force partner," enrolling hundreds of thousands of students in degree and nondegree programs by 2030.

As I said, no wagers from me on its chances; but I will say it's a sure bet that Altierus won't be alone in that pursuit.

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