The Career Schools Private Education Network: A CSPEN Coming Out Party

Dr. Joel A. English
Executive Vice President
Centura College & Aviation Institute of Maintenance

In November 2014, on a Friday afternoon around 4:45, I was slunked in a row of airport chairs in Charlotte, waiting to get home after another week on the road. I was CEO of a small group of broadcast media schools owned by my eccentric friend, Bob Mills; if you work for Bob, he keeps you running. My cell phone buzzed, and I clicked the green circle. Jeri Prochaska. I had never met her before, but as you know, in our industry, that doesn’t matter much. Jeri hit me with an idea.

Two of my seven campuses were in the Chicago area, and that was enough for Jeri to call me and tell me about CSPEN—the Central States Private Education Network (at the time).
Says I, “What’s a CSPEN?
Says she, “I don’t know. What do you think it should be?

Jeri was working in the lead-gen world, and her buddy Tom Knetting was a lobbyist. They, along with a few school people, publishers and other like-mindeds had been observing that several states in the Midwest—Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan—had neither active state associations nor multi-state organizations that offered knowledge-sharing and professional development, and they were toying with the idea of creating this multi-state collaborative. I was about to end a 6-year stint as an ACCSC commissioner, so I was open to hearing about a different venue where I might be able to become a loud mouth.

I’m going to be honest with you. As I listened to Jeri’s frazzled, free-association of ideas, my first reaction was to think strategic. I was thinking about big players whose membership in this central state network thing could make a big impact quickly. I was thinking that, if we could pull in big school systems, then we could get big money through membership dues. But I was erred in the way I was thinking about membership.

Jeri Kept Calling

Over the following few months, I talked to Jeri every other week. She wore a groove into the glass on my iPhone where the green button lights up. Jeri’s passion centered around the CSPEN conference that she was passionately putting together at the O’Hare Renaissance in September 2015. She’d go on and on about how MDT Direct wanted to see this happen, how PlattForm was changing to Keypath and wanted everyone at the CSPEN conference to know about it, how Ambassador was coming out in force. On one side of my brain, I was saying, is that really what our industry needs now? Another conference? And on the other side, I was saying, I know Alex from MDT, Aaron from Keypath, and Stuart from Ambassador. They’re hurting just like schools are—can they afford another conference?

When I talked to Alex, Aaron, and Stu about their plans to support the conference, they were surprisingly committed. Each in their own way said, we aren’t going into this conference thinking we’re going to win a bunch of new clients; we’re going there to support the industry—to support you. Right there in the doldrums of our industry in 2015, these friends-to-our-schools made it clear that, even though sales were down, they were not going away. They made it clear that it was time to partner up and support each other.

That first CSPEN conference was insanely pure. We had heavy-hitting representation from all the accreditors; just about every longstanding career vendor made a showing; publishers were out in force—McGraw Hill, Elsevier, Pearson. The presentations were thoughtful and rich contributions from teachers, administrators, and regulators from around those six states and beyond. It was a bit of a love-fest. It resembled my first teacher conferences from my classroom days—people there because they are passionate about students, on fire about innovating the workforce, and happy to find new solutions for their schools, employers, students, and graduates.

The conference wasn’t super-structured. It was more folksy and attendee-driven. Sessions didn’t really start or stop; rather, conversations just bled into one another. Happy hour started at 3:30. Relationship happened.

But What is CSPEN?

Coming out of the 2015 conference, there may have been a sense that we were at the beginning of something, but it was not clear what that something was. I was back running operations at Centura College and Aviation Institute of Maintenance, and I worked with Jeri to host a series of webinars for anyone who wanted to attend. Like the conference, the webinars were all over the place. Several of the vendors from the conference collaborated with school people to discuss issues in publishing, curriculum, instruction, and politics. Marty Atkins from SAE, the music recording and business school in Minneapolis, gave a webinar on teaching “kids these days”. Marty was the drummer for Public Image Limited—he is a “kid these days”!

But if the 2016 Winter Webinar Series seemed like a mish-mash of a schedule, featuring teachers, administrators, lawyers, and publishers all talking about whatever they find relevant in the current moment of career education, maybe that’s what CSPEN has been shaping up to become: a venue for us to gather, learn from each other what is going on in Washington from passionate insiders, and either absorb or resist that information based on what is important in our classrooms, within our schools, and around those who hire our graduates.

The 2016 CSPEN conference was the same thing. The conference didn’t have a fancy theme or snazzy catch-phrase. Jeri just seemed to open her arms wide, and we came. Again, every accreditor showed up for a session; the vendor booths sold out; schools from throughout the center of the country sent administrators and teachers. Paul Mitchell from Michigan, former CEO of Ross Education, was running for Congress and shared his views on how the futures of career education and Washington could succeed together. Wallace K. Pond waxed prophetically. Though our identity was based around providing networking opportunity and services to schools and community members from five states within the heartland of the country, we actually had attendees from 27 states. Jeri commented, “We’re not very good at excluding people.”

At this second conference, Tom Knetting shared that school people continually approached him about how they could become members of CSPEN and wondered how much it would cost their schools. Tom’s response was, “Sorry, you can’t join. We haven’t figured out how membership works yet.” CSPEN had been so grassroots—so ragtag—that it hadn’t formalized much about what it would look like when it grew up. It had two unpaid staff members and it had identified a group of board members. But little else was formalized in any way.

So, in February 2017, CSPEN decided to grow up a little and have a board meeting. Over the months preceding, we made the decision to establish ourselves as a 501(c)(3), and all that paperwork was completed. Our two-day meeting at an airport hotel at BWI was supposed to center around two questions that people were asking at the conferences:

  1. how do schools become members of CSPEN, and
  2. how much would it cost?

And the real question for us was, how are we going to afford to keep this thing going?

We were at a moment where CSPEN was going to be forced to grow up, create fee structures, make rules, get a checkbook. But before doing so, we stopped and asked:

  1. if we like what we’ve done in the past two years,
  2. what are the attributes that we don’t want to lose as an organization.

The things we agreed made CSPEN CSPEN included:

  • A conference that was affordable—about half the price of most professional conferences—allowing people from just about any position in a school or company to attend.
  • Up-to-date regulatory information distributed consistently to anyone interested, with no cost or membership gateway required.
  • An annual or biannual webinar series offered without cost, so that professional development could be available to people at all levels of an institution.
  • Hot-off-the-presses information provided from the inside of Capitol Hill, provided with an interestingly emphatic approach.
  • A sense of community, breaking down walls between politicians, school people, vendors, regulators, employers, and others who are essential to our community within a casual and laid back atmosphere.
  • A sense of humor, and a relatively informal approach to … well, to just about everything.

As we discussed what made us different and what probably made us appealing, there appeared to be a possible threat to those attributes when membership—and money—came into the picture. When we started talking about what a member gets in return for their annual dues, we saw fences beginning to be built in front of community members and the services we provide. In our own dialog, we saw ourselves beginning to think in terms of limiting access to the things that we had been giving away for free—regulatory emails, webinars, connections—and found ourselves talking about hiking up the price on our conference. Though we hadn’t yet firmly established what CSPEN was, we saw the conversation about membership dues and finances beginning to erode those key attributes that made CSPEN special.

So, we stopped. Knowing we were already organized as a 501(c)(3), we asked ourselves, do we think we would be able to raise more sustenance through membership dues or through charitable donations? Do we think we could sustain our small amount of needs through charitable donations? And if so, wouldn’t this allow us to keep our gates wide open to everyone? With a bit of coffee-napkin math, we locked in a decision: Forget membership. Let’s leverage our ability to accept tax-deductible donations, and keep being who we have been—open, casual, opinionated, community-based, and free.

The Unconference

In the 1970’s, 7-Up branded itself as “The Uncola.” Why did they need to tell us this? We knew 7-Up wasn’t brown, we understood it didn’t have caffeine, and we ignored that it contained just as much sugar as any other soft drink. But, for some reason, 7-Up found it central to its strategy to outwardly differentiate itself from its contemporaries by identifying itself as “not them.” That marketing strategy lasted over two decades. We didn’t necessarily seek to differentiate ourselves from other organizations, conferences, or career education resources, because we are certainly not in competition with anyone. But, we did recognize some differences between what has made CSPEN successful, and what we would likely give up if we took a more traditional approach to membership, fees, and dues.

That said, we also recognize that there are schools, vendors, and individuals who will be in the fortunate position where they can contribute to what our community has to offer through the venue of the tax-deductible charitable donation. And yes, being a fully-fledged 501(c)(3), we have created a donation strategy for those able to contribute to our organization and make it better. What could be more fun than donating to an organization run by a couple of characters named Tom and Jeri?

In the meantime, we are thrilled to be able to continue to offer what we do without barriers or gateways. Our 2017 Spring Webinar Series featured regulatory presentations from Tom Netting and Chris DeLuca, and over 400 of you viewed these presentations. The series also included contemporary approaches to career services and a compliance-focused approach to marketing and lead generation. We had so many participants to these webinars that we were forced to upgrade our webinar software to allow for the growing numbers of participants. And, as you’ve assessed by now, there was no cost to attendees for any of this.

I’m sure, at some point, you’ll be introduced to an opportunity to contribute to CSPEN as a charitable donation. But, if you or your organization are not able to donate financially, no problem. I hope you will continue to benefit from what CSPEN offers as a service organization, and I hope you’ll consider sharing what is important to you in the form of a presentation at our annual conference. If it feels to you as though my main message here has been that the Central States Private Education Network has made the formal decision not to grow up, well, you might be right! But, CSPEN has grown out, expanded our reach and inclusion nation-wide, and has now become Career Schools Private Education Network.