Good times for everyone else are tough times for Reno-based Prospect Education.
Still, the owner of 11 career college locations in California, Washington and Alaska expects to get back on the growth track next year with the opening of six locations.
And the company isn’t fixated on traditional campus models, says Michael Dawson, its president and chief executive.
It’s increasing its offerings of blended education — programs that combine traditional classroom time with online learning — and it’s looking for ways to centralize administrative functions while providing training strongly localized teaching.
Although the company employs 62 at its South Meadows headquarters, and even though it’s been a regular in the Inc. magazine list of fastest-growing private companies, Prospect Education isn’t widely known in its hometown.
In large measure, Dawson says, the company’s low profile reflects its conscious decision that it won’t launch one of its Charter College locations in the Reno-Sparks region.
Dawson, who’s spent more than three decades in the private-sector career education sector, had moved to northern Nevada from California a bit before he was recruited by Sverica International, the San Francisco-based private equity firm that owns Prospect.
Part of his deal: No campus nearby because he didn’t want the distraction of administrators who would turn to a nearby headquarters office for decisions and advice.
The company’s Charter College campuses are located primarily in secondary markets — Lancaster, Calif., and Pasco, Wash., for instance — where it offers training for careers ranging from business administration to criminal justice to information technology.
The recession brought Prospect Education five years in which growth ranged upward from 60 percent.
The economic recovery, however, reduced the urgency that folks felt to develop new career skills. As potential students have been less worried, Prospect Education has seen a couple of flat years, Dawson says.
Faced with that shift in its market, the company is sharpening its focus on degree-completion programs that lead, for instance, to a bachelor’s degree in business for a student who previously completed an associate’s degree. Students who earned certificates are candidates for completion of associate-degree programs.
Think of those students, Dawson says, as repeat customers.
At the same time, Prospect Education is pushing hard to deliver more classes online. Blended classroom and online programs will account for the lion’s share of Charter College offerings within the next year or so, Dawson says.
That’s a convenience to time-pressed students — they need to drive to campus only a couple of times a week — while allowing the college to operate in smaller properties, reducing its lease costs.
Students’ driving time is a key element in the career-college business, says Dawson.
His company figures it can draw students from neighborhoods within a 30-mile radius — or 30 minutes of driving time — of its campuses.
“It’s very neighborhood-sensitive,” says Dawson.
Prospect can control its real estate costs, too, by centralizing administration services, its president says.
That, in turn, allows the company to look at even smaller markets for new locations in its five-state territory — Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California and eastern Idaho.
While Prospect Education occasionally talks with career-college operators who want to sell their schools, the Reno company generally enters new markets with schools it develops itself.
It also relies heavily on internal resources to ensure that its course offerings stay abreast of the training needs of individual markets.
Prospect assembles professional advisory committee in each of its markets a couple of times a year, contracts for third-party research and uses jobs data assembled by state and national agencies to predict hot careers.
Still, Dawson adds, “You have to be willing to take some risks.”
And if a job market shifts quickly, Prospect Education can move much quickly that public-sector schools.
“We can start marketing a program within three or four months,” says Dawson, noting that the company remains nimble despite heavy regulation of private education by state and federal agencies.