Professionals working in the higher education industry like to use acronyms. There seems to be one for everything, especially for higher education conferences. But what can we say? They make our life easier and website links shorter.

As for us at Norton Norris Inc., if you can name an acronym used by a higher education conference over the past few weeks, we can assure you that we have been there. From OACCS (Ohio Association of Career Colleges and Schools), CAPPS (California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools), CSPEN (Central States Private Education Network), NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling), ACCET (Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training) to AACS (American Association of Cosmetology Schools) and PSCNJ (Private Schools and Colleges of New Jersey, we have attended them all.

With over 30 years in the higher education sector, I have been attending conferences for a long time. However, I noticed some big changes this year: All of higher education is reeling from a barrage of demands to stay viable and relevant.

For those working in career education, the news of a friendlier administration is hopeful but the urgency to adapt is heightened with multiple school closings, the fall of a major accrediting agency, Gainful Employment (GE), Cohort Default Rates (CDR) and a strong desire to never live through this period of time again. When examining the conference presentations and discussions amongst members, there are five themes that have emerged and can turn career colleges around:

  1. The role of the accrediting agency will shift.

As accrediting agencies fight for their own survival, it has become necessary to reexamine the concept of peer evaluation. Let’s face it. If the Department of Education (DOE) can swoop down and invalidate an agency, agencies have no choice but to comply with the agenda from above. Accreditors will need to take on an enforcement role above one of collaboration.

  1. Schools must be hyper-vigilant in compliance.

One presenter used the term “white space around compliance” to stress the need for more proactive measures on following the law and best practices. No longer can a school get away with doing the bare minimum on making sure all the I’s are dotted and T’s crossed. Management will have to ensure that each rule and regulation is followed, along with making sure admissions and financial aid personnel are transparent, accurate and complete. Even a hint of misrepresentation or distasteful practices can be met with scrutiny leading to devastating outcomes.

  1. Student outcomes take center stage.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but schools definitely need to step it up in this area. No longer is the business model of enrolling volumes of students who deserve a chance at an education going to cut it (this is the role of the community college). This concept may be hard for many career colleges to adapt to, but it is precisely what has gotten many into trouble. In order to improve student outcomes, there must be admission standards on the front end that improve the chances of academic success and ultimately gainful employment. For those who already have amazing student outcomes, more has to be done to get the word out.

  1. Embed your school in the community.

The once-believed mantra of “us against them” has to take on a different tone. There are enough students to go around and the battle has to be about helping those students achieve their goals versus everyone belongs at my school. Seek to partner with other schools and organizations, and be an upstanding citizen in the communities you serve.

  1. There needs to be a transformation in admissions.

As someone working in the field of admissions for over 30 years, this theme is near and dear to my heart. A high school counselor recently asked me why career colleges make it so hard for a prospective student to get the information they need to make a decision or to even apply. While other colleges make every detail accessible, career colleges add extra steps, such as filling out a form to inquire and then calling incessantly to come on campus for an interview or visit.

These high school guidance professionals are so overwhelmed with their other responsibilities that career/college planning takes a back seat, and yet career colleges make it even harder.

Admissions offices need to let go of old and ineffective habits – especially the admission interview, and replace it with a more valuable (and defensible) activity such as pre-enrollment advising. Yes, this will take training and skill development, but that’s the easy part (check out EnrollMatch.com).

Having an entire profession let go of a business model that it has used for decades is the harder part. With reduced conversion rates, bad press, government oversight, unhappy admissions professionals and an awesome opportunity to really help students, what more evidence is needed?

There is one more theme that cannot be forgotten, and we will give this to you as an extra tip. Note that this is probably most important: This is a group that will simply never ever give up.

Even as the public floggings continue, there are stories of the need for employees in many of the fields taught by these schools. The career college owner and employees are passionate professionals and will give 110 percent when given the opportunity. What other segment of higher education provides the service and one-on-one attention like these schools do?

True, career colleges are not for everyone. But for some, they are the ONLY option to a better life.