As Thunderbird alumni and students, we are deeply concerned about the proposed partnership between Thunderbird and Laureate Education, Inc. While we recognize and acknowledge the changing face of graduate education, this proposal is a short-sighted and ill-advised solution that will cause permanent and irreparable harm to the Thunderbird brand, ranking, and academic reputation.
For-profit education may have its place, but it certainly does not align with the goals, culture or mission of Thunderbird. Furthermore, this selling out of the Thunderbird name will further dilute the brand, and as a result cheapen the value of the degree.
We call upon Dr. Larry Penley and the Thunderbird Board of Trustees to immediately suspend the proposed partnership. Thunderbird’s Global Alumni network, at the absolute core of the “Thunderbird Mystique” MUST have a voice in this matter.
While past administrations have focused on “Thunderbird for Good,” now is the time for us to turn our attention to what is good for Thunderbird.
THUNDERBIRD – LAUREATE PARTNERSHIP: WHY WE CARE
In a press release dated March 18, 2013 Thunderbird announced its plans to partner with Laureate Education, Inc., a for-profit education provider, formerly known as Sylvan Learning. The company, held by private equity, is best known in the US for its online schools such as Walden University. Stated goals of the partnership include the “development of additional online programs, the expansion of Executive Education programs, and the return to undergraduate degree programs.”
What are our main concerns?
We fully acknowledge the changing face of graduate education and the need for innovation. As such, our concern is less about Thunderbird ‘s partnering, and more about its choice of partner. Related to that choice, we are extremely concerned about the effects of the partnership on the Thunderbird brand. Finally, the utter lack of transparency in the process to-date is disconcerting.
Choice of Partner
Laureate Education, Inc. is a for-profit education company best known for its network of specialty schools (hospitality, culinary arts), as well as online programs such as Walden University. A model very similar— if not identical—to Apollo Group/University of Phoenix, for-profit degrees have been the topic of great skepticism among employers—and for good reason.
Along with allegations of questionable practices among for-profit education companies, the quality of the instruction and marketability of the degree is suspect.
In fact, a 2012 US Senate Committee’s two-year investigation of the for-profit higher education industry found:
“…overwhelming documentation of overpriced tuition, predatory recruiting practices, sky-high dropout rates, billions of taxpayer dollars spent on aggressive marketing and advertising, and companies gaming regulations to maximize profits. These practices are not the exception -- they are the norm; they are systemic throughout the industry, with very few exceptions.”
Laureate’s US flagship product, Walden University, was highlighted in the report. The school spent $1,574 per student on instruction in 2009, compared to $2,230 per student on marketing and $1,915 per student on profit.
For-profit education retailers like Laureate may indeed have a place in the higher education ecosystem. However, we don’t believe that the goals, mission, and values of for-profit education align with those of Thunderbird.
Thunderbird’s brand is already extremely fragile. While once a chart-topping niche player, the school’s rankings (and credibility) have fallen precipitously over the past years. The Economist noted in a November 2012 article that Thunderbird didn’t even appear on its top 100 list.
“The school also dropped out of the Economist's ranking of the top 100 MBA programmes on the back of, among other things, disappointing job placement statistics. Last year, just 58% of students found employment within three months of graduation—the third lowest proportion of any the 116 schools surveyed. Students also gave a dismal rating to its careers services department.”
“We are known by the company we keep,” goes the adage. We are deeply concerned that, by aligning with Laureate Education, Thunderbird’s brand value and image will suffer irreparable damage. Employers, prospective students, and the general public will, understandably, lump Thunderbird in the same category as a University of Phoenix or Walden University. Sixty plus years of brand building will be lost in one fell swoop.
Lack of Transparency
Thunderbird’s 40,000 + strong alumni network is a key selling point for the school, and is at the very core of the “Thunderbird Mystique.” While the Board of Trustees (BOT) began the process of examining potential partners in October, until the March 18 press release, there was no consultation (that we’re aware of) with the Thunderbird Alumni Network. As stakeholders, degree holders, and the school’s front line marketing team, it is essential that the voices of Alumni be heard in this monumental decision.
We think this is partnership is a short-sighted stopgap measure to address deeper financial issues at Thunderbird. While it may provide temporary financial relief, the long-term ramifications will be real. We are convinced that the school’s brand, reputation and ranking will all suffer as a result. We call on Dr. Penley and the Board of Trustees to suspend this deal, and to invite Alumni and student stakeholders into the dialogue.