When Kay first applied to Penn, she received something that confirmed her status as an atypical applicant: a one-page rejection letter.

It was not a feeling she’d had many opportunities to grapple with. “Everybody wanted me at that point,” she recalls. “I was on 21 boards! I was involved with charities. I was the commissioner on several very important boards in California. I was like, How could I be denied?”

When she picked up the phone to get an answer to that question, the person who’d signed the letter wasn’t available. She got transferred to Doug Lynch. “And Doug told me—and I had thought it was just the biggest insult I had ever heard—‘You do not belong here.’

“And I was like, This is exactly what I wanted to do! I’ve been in education my entire life. I’m in my 30s—I don’t think I can retire forever!”

Slow down, Lynch said. The fit between student and program is important. The one to which she had applied, GSE’s executive doctorate in higher-educational management, primarily served senior university administrators. Of course, to her mind, Kay had the ultimate credential—college president—but the fact was that she’d been president of the wrong sort of college. Lynch gave her the impression that some on the admissions committee “looked at for-profit colleges as not even part of the higher-education system,” Kay recalls.

But not Lynch, who added that she sounded just right for the new program he was launching.

Four years and one doctorate in education later, Kay comes across as both a true believer in democratizing higher education and a tenacious exponent of the for-profit sector as the way to do it.

Fremont College essentially competes with community colleges. It offers about a dozen associate’s degrees in programs that range from the vocational (massage therapy, Web design) to the somewhat more academic (paralegal studies, accounting). Kay touts Fremont’s pedagogical approach as a “unique six-step process” that “adopt[s] the framework of Work-Based Learning Leadership at the Wharton School” and her own “thesis on improved learning through practice and collaboration.”

(Wharton, which in 2009 lost a $435,000 lawsuit—later reversed—brought by a disgruntled graduate of the Executive Masters in Technology Management program, a collaboration between Wharton and the Engineering School, has actually removed its name from the Work-Based Learning Leadership program. Though numerous Wharton faculty still teach in it, GSE is now its sole sponsor.)

One of the central elements of “Professional Action Learning”—a term Kay has trademarked—involves group-based exercises structured around role-playing; students are variously charged with occupying the role of “presenter,” for instance, or “evidence analyst” or “devil’s advocate.”

Asked why she chose the for-profit route over, say, trying to achieve her educational goals at a community college, she has a ready answer: “Immediate gratification.”

“If I went to a junior college and said, ‘I’m a student at Penn and I’m doing my doctorate thesis and let’s test out Professional Action Learning,’ I think the entire faculty would have hated me … And by the time I was done with the presentation and all the politics [of getting faculty buy-in], I would be 70 years old.”

Educational inputs are one side of the coin. But outputs are arguably more important, particularly given the increased scrutiny of for-profit colleges in Washington. In a suite of new regulations scheduled to be published in 2011, the Department of Education is expected to make federal aid to college vocational programs contingent, to some degree, on measures that include the dropout and job-placement rates of their students.

About three years into her tenure at Fremont, Kay is pleased with the results. “When I first bought the school, we had about 40 percent student retention; now we’re up to close to 80 percent,” she says. “And most important is our [job] placement rate, which went from 50 percent placement to 91.3 percent.”

Compared to some of her larger for-profit peers, who have lobbied intensely against the DOE’s proposals to tighten the regulations governing them, Kay is sanguine about the coming changes. (She says 80 percent of Fremont’s revenue comes from federal loans and grants.) “Once all this shakedown is over,” she says with confidence, “there will be a really big premium to the quality of the institution.”

But like many of her colleagues, she argues that measures like student-loan repayment rates make for tricky comparisons. After all, the for-profit sector tends to serve a population that has little in common with “traditional” four-year, full-time college students.

“Students who go to Harvard and Wharton, they start at a pretty high place,” Kay says, “These are the students who, if you drop them off in the jungles of Africa, they’ll still somehow survive and pay their student loans, you know? But if you take the single mother who is on welfare and already had defaulted on many different loans before taking out another student loan—more likely than not, that person will have a higher chance of defaulting.”

Are society’s interests best served when taxpayers guarantee such a student loan? Kay’s answer is unequivocal. “One option is to leave her alone so that she can be on welfare for the rest of her life,” she says. “The second option is to give her an opportunity so that she can better her life.”

Lynch concurs. “You have to keep in mind that Penn students are so not typical. University of Michigan students are not typical. Something like 80 percent of students now are what they call ‘nontraditional,’ depending on the US Department of Education classification. So your typical college student now is like a 29-year-old working mother.”

For Lynch, who is as apt to frame education in moral terms as in economic ones (references to the 19th-century Catholic educator Cardinal Newman crop up regularly in his conversations and papers), that makes Fremont College an excellent vehicle through which GSE can amplify its influence in the world. Kay “feels very strongly about providing similar opportunities to immigrant women.” Lynch says. “And she doesn’t apologize for the fact that her company is for-profit. Her argument is, ‘If I don’t provide a valuable service, then I go out of business.’”

 


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COVER STORY: ( ) This Education By Trey Popp
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