Interview with Steve Gunderson, President and CEO, Career Education Colleges and Universities (CECU)
Jim Hutton: We understand you recently hosted a successful CECU CEO Summit. For people who may not be familiar with the CEO Summit, can you tell us a little more about it?
Steve Gunderson: One of the things we realized a few years ago is that people look to the national association for leadership convening. We created what we wanted to be a leader only convening where attendees discuss issues, strategies and concerns that are important to them in a safe environment. This year was a little bit different in that we moved beyond just the leadership of schools to also include the leadership of those in the support side of the sector; some would call them our allied members. This was an opportunity for senior-level staff to look at the bigger issues facing our sector; this was not a selling opportunity.
All of that combined with the midterm elections and the program resulted in the largest attendance we’ve ever had by twofold. I think part of what made this one different is that part of what our staff has been working on over the summer and fall is to begin to prepare for the next session of Congress. In doing that, there are a couple of important research areas where we invested some significant money.
We invested research with Gallup because we believe that they are a recognized, credible, independent research firm.
We had Gallup give the first initial summary of their findings. Following that, we had a firm by the name of NDP Analytics that has done more policy work, and they looked at all of the proposals on Capitol Hill for repayment rates as a replacement for CDR-cohort default rates. They then showed everyone why we need an income-adjusted repayment rate as public policy. The engagement of everybody in the room during those two presentations was unlike anything I have seen in my eight years with this association.
Jim: What were some of the other areas of focus for this year’s CECU CEO Summit?
Steve: One of the things that we did is offer a series of presentations. We looked at the political environment, we looked at the communications environment, we looked at the policy environment, the research, etc. Then we engaged everyone in a strategic planning session for the sector over the next two years, broadly speaking, and for CECU specifically. That resulted in recommendations around five different areas. Four of those were action items, and the fifth was stabilizing the membership by making changes that focus on the needs of the members, rather than just on CECU, or APSCU before it. We came up with five different recommendations and took them to the board of directors the following day for our fall board meeting. The board created a series of recommendations for working groups with a timetable that we will work to get done by late spring so that we will have a final report ready for the 2019 annual convention in New Orleans.
Jim: What were some salient points that you feel you learned?
Steve: One of the things that I think we learned was the sector’s intense desire for current, relevant and what I call strategic research. As you know, when we went through the same decline that the sector has, we had to make cuts. One of the things that we cut out over the last two to three years has been funds for research. It was very clear to us that the sector wants more research and believes that research will tell the story of what the new sector is all about.
Second, I think there’s recognition that communications has to be implemented at the most local level. It became very clear that the best soldiers in the communications army are the leaders of our schools. They can get information to their local media and they can better communicate to their policymakers and their elected officials than we can in Washington, D.C.
I think there’s a sense that from a government relations perspective, we don’t need to look at the next two years as just a time when nothing happens, but rather if we do everything right here and with a little bit of luck from Capitol Hill, we might be able to use the next two years as a time when we can actually create some long-term legislative and regulatory policy for our sector on a bipartisan basis. Where that becomes critically important is if in 2020 the administration changes, and we have new leadership in the Department of Education. If we can do the right things on a bipartisan basis over the next two years, then we have a pretty good chance that past issues will not be revisited.
Jim: In addition to the research, were there other key speakers?
Steve: I think the political conversation was one that people really liked because it gave them some of the deep analysis of exactly what was going on. Ron Brownstein, an American journalist, political correspondent and analyst, shared with us his analysis of the election and what that means for us in terms of public policy.
He talked about the change in the political electorate and the fact that what you are seeing in the Senate is becoming pretty securely Republican based on state by state elections and that the House has probably about 40 to 50 Congressional seats that are dead even.
The Democrats have picked up 33-34 new members, many of which were very close races, like 2 percent or less in the difference. Depending on the outcome of the 2020 election, you could see the House go back to the Republicans in 2020. We are seeing the changing paradigm of American politics and how we respond to that in the interest of our sector becomes pretty important.
Jim: What would be your best recommendation to a school owner to help change the public image of the sector?
Steve: I think the number one thing we need to do is we need to talk about the new sector. We’ve talked a lot in the last couple of years about the new CECU, and I don’t think we’ve done enough talking about the new sector. When you look at the data, whether it is looking at the student loan issue, the completion issues, placement, etc., when you begin to look at all of that data, the new sector is a much more successful sector than our opponents would ever want to admit. We have the outcomes, but we are also more responsive to specific communities and their needs than we may have been in the past. Most of our schools define their success by what they do for the employers in their community.
Jim: What advice would you give the current cadre of schools, that have limited resources, on how they can prepare for this future?
Steve: It’s why we really focused on the creation of an effective grassroots program. Rather than spending a whole bunch more money on paid Washington lobbyists, we really believe that it’s much more cost effective, and much more results effective, to use an effective grassroots strategy. We already have 500 schools committed to a grassroots program. Those schools that have a new member of Congress should send an invitation for that member of Congress to come to visit their school, either before the holidays or soon into the New Year. It’s important to reach new members early on and build that relationship, frankly before our opponents on Capitol Hill. Communicating with new members of Congress early and getting them to be open-minded about our sector, is strategically so important.
Jim: Those are great opportunities and strategies we should all be embracing. What do you think is the biggest threat and danger facing the sector?
Steve: I have said in many speeches over the past fall that the biggest threat to our sector is unplanned, unannounced school closings. We can do so much good and then it doesn’t matter where it happens, if we have an unannounced school closing where students and faculty show up on Monday morning, and the facility is locked, and the students are in the street, and they don’t have access to their records and they were almost finished with their courses and ready for a degree, that’s the worst thing in the world.
Our sector really needs to get its hands around this in a way that says look, we’re not telling you whether you should stay open or you close, but think about the destruction, the negative effects an abrupt unannounced closure has on the rest of the schools that are still open and on the overall sector’s reputation.
It is so important that schools commit that they are going to work with us to make sure that if they do close, they have a teach-out program, a transfer program, whatever it takes so that the students are protected.
Jim: What do you predict the next couple of years of the regulatory landscape to be?
Steve: I think on the regulatory side it’s going to be more productive than some people think because I don’t sense any change of attitude by the current department. They are absolutely committed to less regulation. They are absolutely committed to full transparency for all programs at all schools. They are absolutely committed to moving toward one set of regulations for all of higher education. Our sector benefits from all three of those criteria. I’ve been one who has suggested that the sooner we can get new regulations in place we’ll have a history to showcase should we see a change in the Department come 2020. On Capitol Hill, I don’t think there’s any doubt that in the House of Representatives they will be holding numerous oversight hearings. Many of those oversight hearings will go after the Secretary for what they believe have been inappropriate concessions to our sector. We need to be prepared for those circumstances to give the rest of the story.
Jim: Can you just give us a few key takeaways from the Gallup research?
Steve: Mike Dakduk, executive vice president and director of government relations at CECU, has been working with Gallup on doing a deep dive into two specifics constituencies; The Student Satisfaction for Veterans, and the Student Satisfaction for Minority Students, because we think the news there is going to be particularly good and that we will be able to lift that up in a positive way. I think one of the things that we can share is that it’s very clear that in terms of income gains, the students interviewed by Gallup show a significant income gain after completion of their study, versus what they made before they enrolled.
Jim: When are you planning to release the report?
Steve: You have the Democrats in the House electing their new slate of leaders for the next Congress. So that will be the big story. On the Republican side in the House, they are electing who will chair the House Appropriations Committee as the ranking Republican. That will be their big story. We’re also going into this lame duck session of Congress. We would not be able to communicate effectively with all that’s happening during December. It’s not the right time for us to release it. The right time for us to release this is sometime in late January, early February, right around the time of the State of the Union. That’s our target goal to release it either right before or right after the State of the Union.
Jim: What are your top goals for 2019, and what can we expect from this year’s convention?
Steve: We have established a set of policy goals. We have seven government relations goals that we’re going to try to pursue. Those are such things as getting a commitment by the Congress and the federal government to support postsecondary career education, to make sure the Higher Education Act reflects and serves the unique needs of students engaged in postsecondary career education, to try to establish some kind of long-term fair regulatory reform on Borrower Defense, Gainful Employment, transparency and all those types of things that are coming along. Everything we are doing is geared toward trying to achieve a new era of bipartisan support for the work of this sector. If we can get that done and we can show that in legislative and regulatory action on the Hill and if we can show it in other ways through public relations and communications, we’d all be better off.
It’s very clear that the success of the CECU CEO Summit has given us a model for what people would like to see at an annual convention.
We’re going to try and find ways in which we can duplicate that. There’s also a real desire emerging by a number of those who attended the CEO Summit to talk about how collectively we can identify and create the next generation of innovation in this sector. I think you can anticipate that the 2019 convention will be focused on the future, and it will be focused on the future in ways that restores our sector’s commitment to innovation, to growth and to successful outcomes.
Jim: It’s in New Orleans, and what are the dates?
Steve: Yes, June 2, 3 and 4. It starts on Sunday. It’s one day shorter this year than before. We have recognized that you can have the best speaker in the world and then on that third day people leave; they’ve got to go home. We are going to start on Sunday afternoon. We’ll have all our pre-conference stuff on Sunday and opening reception late Sunday afternoon/evening. We’ll have two full days on Monday and Monday evening, Tuesday and Tuesday night and then Wednesday morning everybody can leave their hotel rooms and go straight to the airport.
Jim: What didn’t we ask you that we should’ve?
Steve: I guess the only thing we didn’t talk a lot about that we should’ve is probably the state of the sector, and certainly of CECU, because this was a big conversation in Las Vegas at the CEO Summit, and it’s obviously an ongoing thing. I think it’s important to understand the growth in membership we have seen over the last couple of years during this time of transition. While there have been schools that have closed, or schools that have merged, each year we’ve gotten a bunch of new schools that have joined. Frankly, earlier this afternoon before I started talking with you I was talking with a school that was just beginning to operate on its own. One of the first things on their agenda was to become a member of CECU. We are not out of the woods, but I think we have a pretty good plan for stability and leadership of this sector that will last many years into the future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
STEVE GUNDERSON’S entire career has held the issues of education and workforce investment as priorities for both the nation and his professional work. Today, he advances this work as the President and CEO of the Association of Career Education Colleges and Universities (CECU).
His commitment began at the age of 23, when he was first elected to the Wisconsin State Legislature. After three terms in Madison, Gunderson served 16 years in the U.S. Congress and was a recognized leader on agriculture, education, employment policy, health care and human rights issues. Following his career in public service, he was named the senior consultant and managing director of the Washington office of The Greystone Group, a strategic management and communications consulting firm. His portfolio centered around research, writing, speaking and consulting on the jobs revolution in America. He was the lead author of a book on this subject, The Jobs Revolution: Changing How America Works and published “The New Middle Class: Creating Wealth, Wages and Opportunity in the 21st century.
Gunderson served as President and CEO of the Council on Foundations between 2005 and 2011. One of his many priorities at the Council was education and workforce investment. Under his leadership the Council has created a division for Public-Private Partnerships including the National Fund for Workforce Solutions.
In 2012 Steve became President and CEO of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities. Under his leadership, he has worked to refocus the association and the sector on workforce education programming. He has become a strong voice for postsecondary career education, writing and speaking on this topic across the nation. He is still recognized for his insight and analysis on the national political issues of the day, and has lectured widely from Harvard University to The Brookings Institution.
A graduate from the University of Wisconsin – Madison and the Brown School of Broadcasting, Gunderson and his husband, Ethan Ngo, live in Arlington, Virginia. He is an active member of Redeemer Lutheran Church and today serves on the Board of Directors of Lutheran World Relief. He has previously served on a wide range of nonprofit boards including The White House Fellows Selection Commission, The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg and the Human Rights Campaign.
Contact Information: Steve Gunderson // President and CEO // Career Education Colleges and Universities // 571-970-3954 // firstname.lastname@example.org // https://www.career.org