SM: When you came on board there were 4,400 students. What happened next?
WB: We had to take a step back in the sense that we had added a lot of degrees very hastily. In assessing the quality of our programs, we realized that many of the ones we had were just placed into the program without research. Things are like that when you are an entrepreneur and decisions were made to get the program started, but we needed to begin to improve the sophistication of our programs.
We pruned some of our degree programs which had low enrollment. Once we could demonstrate that the programs we had were of acceptable quality and enrollment, we could then focus on back-office systems. We had a home-grown computer system which was held together by a single person. We actually contracted with a large IT firm to build us a new system that conformed with the proper documentation structure and programming standards.
We designed a back office that was very scalable. This was intentional because I don’t think we were customer service-oriented enough and at times could not respond on a timely basis. We had started out as a correspondence school with some online catalogues. Once we moved to entirely online operations, the back office was not ready for it. In many cases students’ calls and emails would go unanswered for several days.
As a result, we built a very tight system that we call partnership at a distance. We provide students with access to all the services that they would expect to see at a traditional university, which include student advising, catalog selection, online registration and payment of courses. Everything is available online 24×7. It was a huge infrastructure investment.
At the same time, we hired some key individuals on the academic side. This was going on simultaneously with our IT infrastructure investment. In 2003 we had our first visit from the North Central Association, and we were granted candidacy in 2004. They gave us a list of items to approve on over the next two years. In 2004 I was appointed CEO by the board, which wanted to make a change from the founder and I was the only internal candidate.
I wanted to continue to focus on the issues that were important to both accreditation and student retention. That meant focus needed to remain on the quality of our academics and of our student services.
SM: How long did it take you to get accreditation?
WB: We applied in 2003 and received accreditation in 2006.
SM: That is pretty fast.
WB: We worked day and night seven days a week on improvements.
SM: I have talked to some people who say it takes ten years to get regional accreditation.
WB: It can take ten years. There are some schools that have never achieved regional accreditation and just give up. The secret is to focus on the process and the regulations. It is much easier to get there if you already have students. I think the schools that have the toughest times are the schools that start from scratch and don’t really focus on the accreditation when they are started up. They then get into policies and procedures that are difficult to change.
In our particular case, we were accredited by a national accrediting body and at the same time we were focused on some of the issues that the military had with the differences between national and regional accreditation. We were committed as a management team to do whatever it took to make sure that our programs were perceived as quality programs by the accreditation boards.