Your School’s Core Strength

Your School’s Core Strength, By Gregg Meiklejohn, co-founder of Enrollment Resources

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

When training for a sport or physical endeavor, the best personal trainers direct their client’s focus to one key thing — their core strength — to ensure they have a strong and stable base. Before investing effort and time in the legs, arms, and chest, etc., the trainer creates strength, stability, and power in the body’s core first. When the body’s core is strong, the other parts cruise along for the ride.

From my perspective, this analogy connects seamlessly to running a school. My business partner, Shane Sparks, and I have been solving Enrollment Management problems with Lean Management principles for over sixteen years. When doing this work, we consistently run into a common and troubling issue that, in our view, is one reason why many schools are closing, merging, or getting hammered by politicians and regulators.

The issue occurs when school leadership focuses on lead generation, admissions, and career services, to the detriment of the core strength of the business: the program offering.

They are ignoring the core strength of their school. If strengthening the core is not a focus, the whole system is weak, vulnerable, and unsustainable.

The Core Strength Of Your School

We encourage our clients to relentlessly stay in this question, “how can our school become world-class like Tesla is to electric vehicles or Apple is to consumer electronics?” You see, when your school is running like Tesla — producing the best-in-class electric car, offering extensive warranties, creating emerging technology, and five-star user experiences — then secondary problems melt away.

In terms of Career Education as an example, when a school gets closer to world-class, employers line up to hire your graduates and send referrals or training blocks back to your school. Students are driven to complete their education because your ’employer fans’ visit them in class to relay their excitement at interviewing them upon graduation. Admissions teams are excited to objectively qualify and guide prospective students toward a potentially perfect fit regarding their career education pursuits. Marketing costs drop significantly, and the money saved is reinvested into areas that add value, such as scholarships, price reductions, and service guarantees. Branding efforts are like magic, devoid of hype, and exaggeration. With a world-class offering, the nasty regulators, politicians, and consumer protection folks turn their sights away from you and toward schools that are not world-class.

But only when you have a world-class school.

Marketers, in particular, use some colorful sayings to describe what it’s like to sell mediocre offerings. ‘Polishing a turd,’ and ‘nothing wrecks a crummy business like a great marketing campaign,’ come to mind. Nasty, trite analogies that pack a sting because they’re true.

As you are reading this, you may feel, at your heart of hearts, like your school’s offering is the wrong side of average. You could be doing better, but institutional laziness has set in, and leadership has atrophied a bit. You know there is potential. With some applied courage, you could make your school — if not world-class — significantly better.

Play With The Notion Of Offering A Satisfaction Guarantee

Well-meaning people around us said Shane and I were nuts for deciding to offer a bulletproof guarantee twelve years ago. We replied, “Welcome to ER’s mandate: the pursuit of the truth, and the pursuit of world-class and accountability.” Yes, things were tense internally for a little while. But many realized that it is rare to come to work and have someone say, “Hey, we’re going to strive to become a world-class entity. We’ll fail tons. You in?” Enough about Enrollment Resources and back to you, dear reader.

What Would Life Look Like If You Offer Students A Satisfaction Guarantee?

When working with a school’s leadership team, we usually pop this notion on the table: “what would life look like if you offer students a satisfaction guarantee?” Typically, we get a reaction that is, let’s say, reactive. After we remind the leadership team that the question is purely hypothetical, folks calm down and concentrate on the challenge put on the table: what if we offered a guarantee?

That’s when things get interesting. For one thing, Career Schools, in particular, are closer to world-class than they realize, particularly in the area of program delivery. Studies commissioned by organizations such as CECU have shown that the quality of education is very good. CECU commissioned a study by Gallup that found the post-graduate outcomes for Career Schools are excellent.

Set aside overall Career School-excellence for the moment. What would you need to do to be so confident in your school’s core strength, that offering a guarantee was a no-brainer like it is for Tesla?

  • Would you consider flipping the classroom and reworking the access that your students have to learning resources, allowing students to view excellent lectures online?
  • What about curating online study materials and support face-to-face interaction with teachers during class time?
  • Would you test interactive teacher/student tools? Dr. Ginondis’ Clickrz technology, the emerging interactive classroom platform BackChannel, or Klass Apps, to name a few? There are many excellent and inexpensive teacher/student collaboration apps that are worth testing.
  • Would you flip the textbook and prepare teaching assistants to answer student questions efficiently and with supporting information by creating course notes that correlate specific paragraphs in the textbook with timestamps in the recorded lecture?
  • Would you provide tools for kinesthetic learners, like movement breaks, interactive models, learning strings, and role play?
  • How about making English tutors available to help students with grammar, etc. when students are building out papers? (The University of Phoenix has successfully pioneered this.)
    What about losing the program that has 1000 competitors or squeezing that last nickel out of that program where you have sunk costs?

If you added these seven delivery elements, would that be enough for you to confidently offer a guarantee to your students? Let’s keep going.

What About Your School’s Relationships With Employers?

  • Would you offer a participation course on a prominent industry within your school’s market to get students excited for possible ways they can apply their credentials within that industry? Course material and outcomes would intersect with the primary sectors hiring your grads — for example, IT for Agribusiness in the Midwest, Phlebotomy for Eldercare, etc.
  • Would you invite employers to the classroom once a month to encourage students to complete their program while also creating interest in the industries that hire your grads?
  • Would you negotiate student-level memberships for industry-specific associations? What about getting your students invitations to those associations’ mixers? Most programs feed graduates into a specific industry, which is served by professional associations.
  • Moore’s Law: Would you work with your employers to develop a curriculum to fill the positions and skill-gaps they see around the corner?

Crazy Idea: Why Not Decouple Your School From Title IV Funding?

  • Susan Schultz, a well-known consultant in the proprietary school space, has identified fourteen different sources of alternative funding a school can use for students. Contact her, and I’m sure she would share.
  • If you offer an associate degree, an alternative would be to split your associate degree into three certificate programs that seamlessly ladder into it. How might that look in terms of student funding, user experiences, etc.?
  • Why not commit to taking a portion of your learning online so students can “earn while they learn”? A job usually means the potential for a line of credit.
    Why not offer digital badges for every single course your students take or the language they speak?

If you integrated the fifteen improvements listed above into your offering, would you offer a guarantee to your students? Let’s keep going.

What About Reframing Your School’s Entire Offering?

  • What about adding lifetime audit privileges to the tuition package? Intakes are rarely sold out, so your school could offer grads a free redo, upskill, or refresh.
  • What about bundling in five years of continuing education webinars? Students from your school get CE for free, and grads from your competitors can attend if they pay cash.

These seventeen ideas could strengthen the core offering of your school. Would implementing them make you so confident in your school’s core strength that a guarantee was a no-brainer? They could get your school closer to world-class, and you closer to having the confidence necessary to provide a satisfaction guarantee to your students.

You may still see offering a guarantee to your students as absurd, but perhaps to a lesser extent than when you began reading this article. These suggestions haven’t been audited for regulatory efficacy, so your inner bureaucrat may have found holes. You may feel twitchy that they break reg 2304, subsection 32, or somesuch.

The critical takeaway I’m hoping to instill is that you see the value in staying in the question: “How do we become world-class, like Tesla for electric cars or Apple for smartphones? How do I get so darned world-class that I can proudly offer world-class satisfaction guarantees to my students?” Stay in this question, and in my opinion, good will prevail.

Reality Check

We walked through a scenario plan of what life might look like if you offered a satisfaction guarantee — a nice thought but an outrageous idea. But reader, there’s a head-fake within this article: attaining world-class may be forced upon you at some point. External developments involving federal politicians, state attorneys general, etc., are seemingly heck-bent on making lives for EDU innovators miserable. One response would be to dedicate yourself to making your school bulletproof. World-class offerings will go a long way toward getting regulators off your back.

Scenario-plan around having a world-class core offering, like world-class athletes. Like I said, having a world-class offering will help to mitigate regulatory scrutiny toward your school and make the work of your ancillary departments (arms and legs) a little easier along the way. World-class would cut lead gen costs, give admissions folks the freedom to counsel and inspire employers to be a part of your world-class EDU programs. And your CPA will love you.