By Dennis Spisak, President, DJSpisak Consulting
We’ve been living the last few years within a regulatory system that has painted our entire sector with the same brush. The Department of Education (DOE) and several state governments have chosen to “go after” the entire career college sector, because of the faults of a few. They will deny this but when you put unreasonable regulations on one sector of higher education and not other sectors, I think it is pretty obvious what the intent truly is. In the end, our sector will suffer, our communities will suffer, businesses that benefited from the skills of our graduates will suffer, but, more importantly, we are leaving hundreds of thousands of individuals with few options to better themselves from a career standpoint.
That brings me to the closing of Cambria-Rowe Business College (CRBC) in Johnstown, PA and what motivated me to write this article.
The closing of Cambria-Rowe Business College hit me especially hard for a number of reasons. I’m from Johnstown, PA where Cambria-Rowe has been located for 125 years.
To say it’s a legendary institution in the Johnstown and surrounding area wouldn’t be doing it justice. It was far more than that.
Johnstown is a proud blue-collar town. The work ethic was drummed into us from an early age. You never took anything for nothing. You paid your way and you worked for what you had. In the 1960s, when I graduated from high school, our career path was clear and set. The graduating females could attend a four-year college, attend a business college, find employment in an office, bakery, laundry, manufacturing plant, etc. The males could go to college because they were academically inclined, go to college because they played sports, or work in the steel mills, manufacturing plants or mines.
My family lived in the projects, so financially we never thought about attending college. Financially it was out-of-our reach. Fortunately, I ended up in a state college because of football while three of my sisters graduated from career colleges. One of them attended and graduated from Cambria-Rowe Business College in the early 1970s and went on to a successful career in the area of health insurance in a major hospital. The other two graduated from career colleges with emphasis in dental health. Again, both had successful careers in their field. I might add that one of those sisters worked in a laundry for 20 years before she attempted to better herself and her family by attending a career college.
My association with Cambria-Rowe began early in my life. When I was 12 years old, I helped at Mercy Hospital, which was less than a mile away from CRBC. One of the ladies that worked behind the counter of the snack bar of the hospital, Mrs. Moran, was the mother-in-law of Doug Devaux, who at that time was the owner of Cambria-Rowe. I had known the name Doug Devaux as the coach of our rival football team in grade school. His school was on the Hill while our school was in the Valley. The money was on the Hill and the steelworkers, coal miners, etc., were in the Valley. Needless to say, it was more than just a football game when we played Our Mother of Sorrows. Unfortunately, they beat us most of the time, which only added to the negative feelings I had towards their team and their coach. Whenever Mrs. Moran would mention the name of her son-in-law in conversation with others, I would cringe.
Fast forward to 1986 at the national AICS meeting in NYC. I was a regional manager for McGraw-Hill, Gregg Division and had been invited to join a dinner that had been set up by our VP of Sales, Joe Greco. We went to a very nice restaurant with Don Jones and his wife and Don’s right hand man, Doug Devaux. At the time, the name didn’t click with me but after talking awhile, it came out that Doug was from Johnstown and had owned Cambria-Rowe. All I could say was, “You’re that Doug Devaux!” I might add, you couldn’t meet a nicer, more dedicated, generous person as Doug Devaux.
My high school was located on the same street as Cambria-Rowe Business College. I would see students, mostly females in the 1960s, entering and leaving the school throughout the day. Johnstown at the time was thriving with a population of over 50,000 with the majority of individuals working for the two steel mills we had in the area or companies that were suppliers to the steel corporations and other manufacturing companies.
Even then, Cambria-Rowe Business College was a recognized source of providing qualified, skilled workers to serve local businesses and manufacturing companies in the Johnstown area.
They were an integral part of the community and worked in tandem with the community to serve Johnstown and the surrounding area.
My next direct contact with Cambria-Rowe came at the AICS national meeting in Colorado Springs where I met the new owner of the college, Bill Coward. What stands out in my mind, was how excited Bill was to be the owner of Cambria-Rowe. He began working at Cambria-Rowe as an admissions representative in 1976 and two years later was named director of the college.
Bill recognized the impact of technology on education and in the workplace very early and began moving in that direction as early as 1980. In 1986 he hired Mike Artim, a specialist in management information systems, to incorporate technology throughout the school and the teaching/learning process. Bill eventually purchased the college in 1993 and he and Mike, who was executive director at that time, implemented curriculum, policies and procedures that set CRBC apart from other colleges in the area.
I visited Cambria-Rowe in the late 1900s to find every student was issued a laptop and they were actually being used in the teaching/learning process. I believe CRBC was one of the first schools I visited that had Wi-Fi throughout the school for student and classroom use. I might add that I visited career colleges nationally and had never seen this as a practice until that visit to Cambria-Rowe. Eventually I found myself contacting Mike Artim for advice on anything dealing with technology or his thoughts on what was coming down-the-road in terms of trends in technology. Being involved in postsecondary publishing as I was, Mike proved to be a valuable source of information and knowledge. I also had other colleges contact Mike with questions they had about technology and to hear what positive and productive things he was doing at Cambria-Rowe. Mike was always available and more than willing to help others in this area.
In 2005 Mike contacted me to let me know of a new curriculum initiative he and his staff were implementing at CRBC. In short, this was the incorporation of EQ skills (soft skills) throughout the curriculum beginning in the first term.
Basically, CRBC recognized that employers really want students to have EQ skills such as positive attitude, working with teams, communication skills, problem-solving, etc., in addition to their specific job skills.
I was so excited when Mike told me about this that I invited him to our corporate office in the Chicago area to present the curriculum to our vice president of publishing. For years studies have shown and employers have stated that job success depended more on soft skills than on the hard skills (specific job skills), yet postsecondary schools continued to place major time and emphasis on hard skills and little or no time on the soft skills. I wanted our company to consider such an approach to what we published. Incorporate soft skills as we present the hard skills of a specific job area.
I give this background of Cambria-Rowe Business College to make a point. You can see their focus has always been on graduating students that were prepared for the job market and met the needs of their employers. They incorporated technology and revised their curriculum to provide the skills employers find necessary for job success. So what impact will the closing of Cambria-Rowe have on Johnstown and the surrounding area?
For the past several decades, Johnstown has suffered significant population loss. This is due largely because of the shift from a manufacturing to a service society. The steel mills of Johnstown are gone as are most of the large manufacturing plants. The jobs have shifted to other areas. Throughout those changing decades, Cambria-Rowe continued to be successful because they provided the skills the job market required of their employees. They changed with the times and maintained a steady pool of qualified workers for the employers of the area.
Cambria-Rowe is like most mom and pop career colleges throughout the United States. These are schools that serve a purpose. They are not out to simply take money from the government and/or students. These schools are there to provide job skills to individuals that would not likely have had an opportunity to enter the job market and better themselves from a job standpoint and provide a decent life for their families. Yes, they do make profit, but they are businesses. If they were not providing a worthwhile product or service, they would not survive as a business. However, foremost to the owners of our schools is the satisfaction they receive from seeing a student, who came to them with little hope, graduate and obtain employment that will lead to a satisfying life for them and their families.
So what finally closed the doors of Cambria-Rowe Business College? Throughout the past two decades of change in the Johnstown area, Mike and Bill were able to adjust to the changes. Even in the last three years, they survived by doing what they do best, providing job skills and helping individuals enter the job market. It had become increasingly difficult in light of proposed regulations like gainful employment but they managed to stay the course.
One of the final straws for CRBC, as it will be for many more I fear, is the threat of the DOE shutting down the regulatory agency for 864 institutions in which approximately 800,000 students are currently enrolled. What can a school like Cambria-Rowe do if their regulatory agency is eliminated? Getting into another agency is time and money consuming and there is no guarantee they will be accepted. How many students will enroll in our schools if they believe the school may not be accredited? Some will say the DOE has not shut down ACICS and that is true. But, as the DOE is fully aware, just the threat of shutting down a major regulatory agency for our schools is enough to put another nail in the coffin for many of our mom and pop schools. Schools that have been providing their students and communities with a valuable and beneficial service for decades will no longer exist.
What will happen to 800,000 students? I know that many of those students will not go on with their education. What then? Welfare? Crime? Who knows? But we do know that such school closings will take opportunities away from individuals that have few options on bettering their lives.
What happens to the employees of the 864 schools that were accredited with ACICS if they are forced to close? What happens to the companies in the local community that supplied the schools with products and services? What about the loss of taxes to the community and to the state? I don’t think you’ll see taxes coming in from community colleges or the four-year schools. As a matter of fact, they are the schools that are taking our tax dollars, unlike schools like Cambria-Rowe that actually pays taxes.
I’m an outsider to the career college sector. I have never worked in a career college but in my former position with a major publishing company, I have worked with career colleges, as well as, secondary schools, community colleges and four-year schools nationwide for over 30-years. Career colleges have become special to me over the years because I see what they can do that no other sector of higher education can for a segment of our population. I’ve seen it firsthand with my own family.
Having gone to career college graduations and seeing the children, parents, aunts and uncles, and, in many cases, the neighborhood, proudly cheering for their graduate, can bring one to tears.
They are proud that someone from their family has taken a step forward in their lives.
It’s obvious to the reader that I’m greatly upset by the closing of Cambria-Rowe Business College. More than upset, I’m mad. The closing of Cambria-Rowe Business College should never have happened and would not have happened except for government knowingly targeting the career college sector. The building that I’ve known for decades will either be torn down or reallocated by another company. The contributions the school made to my hometown will no longer be. I worry about the present and future students that may have attended CRBC. Where will they go? Mike Artim has the cooperation of the local community college to pick up the current students of the college. But, nationwide we find our community colleges in total disarray. They are not capable of handling more students than they currently have. In CA, there is a waiting list for courses needed to graduate. Is that the answer to the needs of students that attend career colleges? The threat of taking away the accrediting agency for hundreds of schools will force many to close and it will be a major injustice in many areas. Injustice will be done to the owners and employees of the schools and to the communities they have served for decades; as well as the students that benefit from the type of education only offered by career colleges.
In over 30-years of working in educational publishing, Cambria-Rowe will always standout as one of the finest schools I have ever worked with and that includes both community colleges and four-year colleges. Knowing the value they provided to a small town and relatively poor region is now gone, makes me extremely sad. But the injustice of why they were forced to close because of a negligent action by the DOE is what really has me concerned and upset.
I wish decision makers at the Department of Education would take the time to read the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat where they would see the public outcry over the closing of Cambria-Rowe. Read what the students are saying and learn of the situation they now find themselves facing. Upon hearing of the closing, one alumni was quoted as saying, “I’m not sad for myself, but for the community and future generations who will not be given the opportunity I had to benefit from the dedication, commitment and experience of the faculty and staff.” Read the articles about the negative impact the closing will have on local businesses that relied on CRBC for quality workers. And, most importantly, feel the heartbreak that a community is feeling because a venerated and valuable institution has been taken from them for all the wrong reasons.
DENNIS SPISAK began a 32-year career in publishing with McGraw-Hill in 1981, holding several management positions including regional manager and vice president of sales/national sales manager for the career education division of McGraw-Hill Higher Education. After leaving McGraw-Hill in 2011, he served as senior consultant for Pearson Learning Solutions and in 2013 he started DJSpisak Consulting, which concentrates on the career college sector of postsecondary education. DJSpisak Consulting deals with new technology companies working with career colleges, as well as working with individual career colleges to enhance performance and outcome achievement.
Spisak was named one of the 25 Most Influential People in the Career College Sector by Career College Central magazine in 2008, and he was recognized as one of 25 who are “Making an Impact in Career Education” by Career College Central magazine in 2012.
He also served as vice chairman on the executive board of the Imagine America Foundation.
He earned his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in business education from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, and he is a recognized national speaker on topics dealing with faculty development, retention, handling and embracing change, teaching methodology, the impact of technology on all aspects of the teaching/learning process, and more.
Contact Information: Dennis Spisak // President // DJSpisak Consulting // 314-422-8199 // firstname.lastname@example.org