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Future Shock

All in the Family

Proud Legacies of America's Family-Owned and Operated Career Universities
University Business, Nov 2010

Beyond local butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers, when was the last time you remember shopping at a family-owned and operated bookstore, pharmacy, or haberdasher, let alone a family-owned and operated school, college, or university?

Placed squarely between a rock and a hard place of increased regulatory scrutiny, publicly subsidized community and technical colleges and craven for-profit competition, family-owned colleges and universities have become all but an extinct species. Faced with these challenges, small mom/pop-run campuses have been acquired or simply driven out of business by large, widely popular, and publicly traded, for-profit companies such as Apollo, Career Education, and DeVry, and even newer players like Capella, Corinthian, and Grand Canyon.

This observation does not carry with it by implication any suggestion that these proprietary higher learning behemoths offer, by design, a lesser-quality program. Rather, this perspective suggests an inexorable mega trend, and that is publicly traded, for-profit higher ed corporations now control an ever-increasing market share of America's postsecondary education sector.

There are now only a handful of institutions that carry on the legacy of intergenerational ownership.

Estimated by industry insiders, postsecondary commentators, and higher learning long-beards, family-owned and operated schools, colleges, and universities numbered several hundred just two generations past. Fast-forward to the new millennium and the number has dwindled to approximately 40. Today, among the more prominent remaining family-owned and operated institutions are Herzing University (Wis.), Sullivan University (Ky.), and Rasmussen College.

This conflation of the higher learning marketplace has been exacerbated by: spiraling default rates; unrealistic employment compensation expectations by governmental regulators; and more sophisticated and choosy educational consumers who demand more for less.

Yet, for all of the modern trend lines pointing to the merging and consolidation of for-profit higher education, there remains a number of family-owned and operated career institutions that have stood the test of time, delivered value-added programs, survived the vicissitudes of a fast changing demography, and overcome the daunting challenges of a fickle economy and a catastrophic global financial meltdown. Indeed, there are now only a handful of intergenerational family-operated institutions that carry on family name, and through succession of their progeny, carry on the legacy of intergenerational ownership.

Chartered in 1965 by Henry and Suzanne Herzing as a computer programming school in Milwaukee, Wisc., today Herzing University is led by Ren?e Herzing, their daughter.

With 11 campuses in the United States, four learning site locations in Canada, and a fast growing online division (, the university has diversified its educational offerings in the fields of computer information and information sciences, healthcare, design, business, entrepreneurship, and legal studies. Offering bachelor's degrees and most recently graduate programs at the master's level, Herzing has grown through acquisition by merging a wide and varied range of postsecondary schools and higher learning institutions across the United States and Canada.

Reflecting on 45 years of heritage and evolution, we learned from Hank Herzing that one significant driving force in delivering quality higher education opportunities is the fact that his family's name is imprinted on every campus and every diploma earned by its graduates. Typically, these first-generation college graduates go on to meaningful employment, career mobility, and, in many cases, further studies at the graduate level.

Mr. Herzing puts it simply this way. "Twenty years ago, I wanted to plan for the continuance of Herzing College as an independent entity owned by the family even after I was gone," he remembers. "A trusted and long-term board member said I should strengthen the board of directors, which we did, and this was very strategic when it came to seeking regional accreditation later.

"If I was no longer alive or in retirement, the Board could choose a successor," Herzing explains. "That the board chose as my successor one of my daughters was not only a source of personal satisfaction and great pride, it made me feel assured that the values and culture we had developed at Herzing over the years were certain to be continued."

Mr. Herzing boasts an interesting and somewhat unique educational background for a proprietary university owner, which includes an engineering degree from Northwestern, a graduate degree in electrical engineering from New Mexico State University and an MBA from Marquette University (Wisc.). Prior to founding the institution that bears his name, Mr. Herzing worked as a senior missile test officer for the U.S. Navy. Paradoxical though it may seem, running a family owned and operated institution these days is in fact "rocket science" and Hank Herzing seems like the perfect match.

In contrast, Mr. Herzing's daughter, Rene Herzing, earned a bachelor's degree from Brown (R.I.) and an MBA from the University of Phoenix. Prior to joining the university, Ms. Herzing taught in Scotland and Germany, and is still regarded as a rock 'n' roll pop star in Western Europe. Suffice it to say that President Rene Herzing is not your typical higher ed CEO. This is a new-age leader with both a traditional Ivy League education and a corporate education background - a uniquely skilled thought leader in the increasingly competitive and sophisticated global higher learning marketplace.

When asked what "family-owned and operated" means to her, Rene Herzing shares this explanation. "It means caring about each individual student, and the faculty and staff who serve them, like they are part of an extended family. It is personal, intergenerational commitment to enhancing the lives of our students and their families, many of whom have entrusted the education of multiple family members and generations to our institution."

Colleges and universities like Herzing, Sullivan, and Rasmussen have created a distinct niche for themselves as career-oriented, student-centered, and employer-connected institutions - producing high quality education, skills certification and employment preparation opportunities for an aspiring, post-secondary student consumer market. Using a "food for thought" metaphor, one might think of these holistic institutions as the ideal home cooked meal and not the fast food, McCollege franchise suggested by the 900-pound, publicly traded, for-profit gorillas.

At the end of the day, what joins these several family owned and operated institutions of higher learning is a common sense of pride in ownership, family name, and a legacy of commitment to preserve their career education mission?producing successful student academic and employment outcomes while keeping it all in the family.

James Martin and James E. Samels are authors of Turnaround: Leading Stressed Colleges and Universities to Excellence (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.), and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.