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December 2004
Smart Education For Working Adults
By Ellison Clary

     Krystle Stephens works full time and spends eight hours a week taking classes toward a Master of Business Administration degree. She meets her two classes online, four hours each, on two different nights. Clearly, she’s a non-traditional college student. Also evident is that she’s a perfect fit for Strayer University. She’s enrolled in the school’s south Charlotte campus in Whitehall, in a business park near South Tryon Street and I-485.

     “I need the flexibility because I travel a lot in my work,” says Stephens, the regional information referral specialist for the Catawba Area Agency on Aging. Based in Rock Hill, she travels throughout the South Carolina counties of York, Chester, Lancaster and Union. “I can change class nights to fit my schedule,” she says.

     Strayer University is the largest operating unit of Arlington, Va.-based Strayer Education, Inc., a for-profit education services corporation. It offers degrees in business administration, accounting, information technology, education and public administration. The school designs its programs to fit the lives of working adults who are pursuing college educations to advance their careers and personal goals.

     Started in Baltimore in 1892, the school could be called a late bloomer. First known as Strayer Business College of Baltimore City, it expanded to the Washington, D.C. area in 1904. It was renamed Strayer College in 1969 when it won the right to award bachelor’s degrees. In 1987, it became authorized to confer master’s degrees.

     In 1996, Strayer Education, Inc. was organized as a separate holding company to take the school public and raise expansion capital. The District of Columbia granted the school “university” status in 1998. Strayer Education completed a major recapitalization in 2000 and a new management team took over. And, since then, Strayer has opened campuses in five more states.

     The team leader is Robert Silberman, chairman and chief executive of Strayer Education and a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Army. He came to Strayer from CalEnergy Co. Inc. where he was president and chief operating officer. Previously, he was chief executive and assistant to the chairman of International Paper Co.

     From 16 campuses in 2001, Silberman has expanded Strayer to 30 to date. Two new campuses will be opening soon in Tampa, Fl. Strayer operates both a north and a south campus in Charlotte, plus two in the Raleigh-Durham area and one in Greenville, S.C., all opened since 2002.

     On these campuses, as well as the 25 others from Pennsylvania to Georgia, a total of 23,000 students, mostly working adults such as Stephens, pursue mostly business degrees.

     Strayer doesn’t break down enrollment by individual campus but Silberman says enrollment in Charlotte tops 500 on each campus. “Historically,” he says, “campuses like those in Charlotte grow into 1,000 or 1,500 students, picking up 100 to 150 students a year.”

 

Education That Makes Sense

     Stephens started studies at the south Charlotte campus in spring 2003 and plans to complete her M.B.A. with a concentration in marketing by June 2005. Ultimately, she hopes to earn a doctorate. Her goal is to teach public health with a specialty in gerontology.

     She’s been with the Catawba Area Agency on Aging for three years and she’s found that her studies are helping her right now.

     “I’m enhancing my marketing capabilities,” says the resident of Tega Cay, S.C. “I’ve matured a lot, professionally and personally.”

     Stephen’s sentiments don’t surprise Patricia (Patty) Ardoline, regional director for Strayer University who recently moved to Charlotte from the Triangle area where she helped open a new campus in north Raleigh. Ardoline oversees administration of Strayer’s five Carolinas schools.

     “We provide the flexibility that a working adult needs,” Ardoline points out as she sits in a classroom at the south Charlotte campus. “Working adults are juggling many different hats. We focus 100 percent on helping them achieve their goals.”

     In the Carolinas as well as throughout the Strayer University footprint, the typical student is 34 years old, with annual income between $20,000 and $80,000. Ardoline says the Charlotte profile includes about 55 percent women from various minorities. That reflects the increasing number of minority women who are realizing that as they re-enter the workforce they need additional education, Ardoline explains.

     The Strayer student population as a whole, she says, is made up largely of people who have been passed over for advancement or have lost a job because they lacked appropriate education.

     Ardoline’s eyes sparkle as she ticks off the advantages Strayer offers folks such as these.

     “Strayer’s business degrees include an associate’s, a bachelor’s and a master’s, the latter of which has really taken off in the Carolinas,” she says. “People need the degree now and there’s no reason to put it off any longer. We have a schedule to accommodate their needs.”

     Strayer operates on a quarter system in which one class lasts 11 weeks. A student taking one class a semester can earn a master’s in 12 quarters, or three years. For a bachelor’s in business, a student taking two classes per quarter can earn a diploma in five years.

     Tuition for an undergraduate class runs $1,100; for a graduate class approaches $1,500.

     Ardoline says Strayer maintains articulation agreements with many North Carolina community colleges in which they recognize the validity of classes Strayer students complete and vice versa.

     Like Stephens, about 20 percent of Strayer students throughout its footprint take classes online. This allows ultimate flexibility for when they sit through a class – weekday, evening, Saturday morning or a combination of all three.

 

Advancing by Degree

     Relatively few students take courses during the day; most Strayer campuses including south Charlotte don’t get busy until around 4 p.m. when those with jobs start trickling in. Even when the student presence is largest, between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. on weeknights, classes are smallish.

     Stephens says her region’s classes usually consist of 10 to 12 students, allowing the instructor to take an interest in each person.

     Many of the 18 instructors on the south Charlotte campus, like those throughout the system, are part-timers who hold other jobs. “They bring practical experience into the classroom,” Ardoline says. “Students get a combination of what they learn in the textbooks as well as what is going on out there in the business world and what employers are looking for.”

     Still, even part-time instructors must have master’s or doctorate degrees depending on what they’re teaching, Ardoline points out. As part of Strayer’s support services, the instructors offer academic counseling, including which classes a student should take and in what sequence.

     Ardoline enjoys relating stories of students’ successes. She likes the one about the Charlotte man who was an “average employee” of a food services company. He earned his master’s, moved into management and presides over an entire department.

     Ardoline herself is a Strayer success story. With the University for 15 years, she started just after completing her M.B.A. at the Alexandria, Va., campus. A communications graduate of tiny Marywood University in Scranton, Pa., she was in customer service for a sporting goods distributor until deciding to further her education.

     “I worked my way up through the Strayer business office and through the financial aid department,” she says. Ultimately, she was sent to North Carolina to open the first Triangle campus. After being shuffled to Pennsylvania to help start a campus in Delaware County, she returned to the Carolinas as regional director, arriving in Charlotte this year.

     “I share my story with students all the time,” says Ardoline, who plans her upcoming wedding when she’s not concentrating on Strayer. “The students need to understand that they are not alone, that they are definitely in the majority. The people sitting next to them have shared the same experiences they have.”

     Only 25 percent of Americans hold an advanced degree Ardoline points out, and those without them are being buffeted by a shifting economy. That’s particularly true of the Carolinas, she says, where traditional industries such as textiles and furniture are moving offshore or vanishing in favor of technology and service-based businesses. These often require new or different skill sets and enhanced education.

     “Absolutely, Strayer will grow fast,” Ardoline says. “As job requirements go up, so will the demand for degrees.”

 

Growing a National Footprint

     Chairman Silberman pledges five new campuses a year for the immediate future. He visualizes a Strayer University that is national in scope, rather than today’s regional version featuring campuses in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and – soon – Florida, as well as the District of Columbia.

     “I came to the company in 2000,” Silberman says. “I told our investor base I thought we could be a nationwide university. It was a deliberate decision on our part to add and expand our footprint outside the District of Columbia area.”

     As campuses have opened in rapid succession, Strayer’s total enrollment has jumped to 23,000 this year, up from nearly 13,000 in 2000. Silberman seeks more growth.

     He hopes to follow the footsteps of the University of Phoenix, the nation’s largest private university. With more than 140 campuses and learning centers in the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada, it also specializes in educating working adults. It boasts a 200,000 student enrollment and net income in 2003 of $247 million.

     For-profit competitor DeVry, Inc. operates 23 campuses and turned a $58.1 million net income for 2003. It concentrates on traditional age students who are attracted to technology-related courses. Like the University of Phoenix, DeVry maintains a campus in Charlotte.

     While Strayer’s net income for 2003 was $33.7 million, that number has grown steadily from $21.7 million on 2000. Earnings per share have followed a similar curve, increasing to $2.27 for 2003, up from $1.41 in 2000.

     Silberman doesn’t project financial goals. “If we can successfully serve more students,” he says, “the revenue will take care of itself.”

     He brags about the “ton of value” Strayer delivers. “Our students basically double their earnings power when they graduate with a bachelor’s from Strayer,” he says. “We’ve proven we can do that with a high level of quality and a certain amount of economic efficiency such that we generate a financial return.”

     Silberman would like to grow the 20 percent of Strayer revenue that comes from “institutional alliances.” These are agreements in which an employer pays tuition directly to Strayer for employees who attend classes. In Charlotte, these alliances include Bank of America, Wachovia and Compass Group.

     Silberman’s confident of Strayer’s future, he adds, because the school is filling a void.

“We operate campuses in Philadelphia, the District of Columbia, Raleigh, Charlotte and Atlanta, which happen to be the most education-intensive places in the country, with the exception of Boston,” Silberman says. “The difference is that there are very few institutions that really focus on working adults like Strayer.”

     “The truth is,” he says, “most places in the United States have a real need for accredited, bachelor and master degree education for working adults.”
Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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