American Career College – On A Mission
With Thomas McNamara, President
You have a diverse background. How did you end up being president of American Career College?
I have a very diverse background, I’ll grant you that. I grew up in Ireland and went to university in Ireland. I always valued education, because I was the beneficiary of a state-funded education. If it weren’t for the fact that the Irish government provided the equivalent of Pell Grants, there’s no way I’d be sitting here today. My generation, and maybe a slight generation before me, was the first of a group of well-educated Irish people to come through the educational system.
I went from college into finance at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and then I worked at an Irish company and came to America. I planned to stay here for a while, then go to Australia for a while and then go back to Ireland. I met a young lady here and decided to stay— and I’m still here.
After looking at an alternative career path, I joined Career Education Corporation in Chicago as a finance controller. I worked the International Academy of Design Technology in downtown Chicago, and it was a wonderful experience. It is an inner city school that offers programs from information technology to graphic design, and it was the first time that I had actually seen a career college in action. Granted, it was from the finance side, but I prided myself in really getting involved in the other functions of the school.
As I look back, it probably was the most rewarding 18 months of my career. I was dealing on a daily basis with students who were trying to improve themselves. It reminded me a lot of the experience that I had myself in college; there was a whole group of us that were first-time college-goers, and we were going home to parents who appreciated the value of education but couldn’t really relate to the experiences that we were having, because they hadn’t gone to a university themselves. I saw the administration interacting with people and the way that they would really try to help people continue their education.
Over the course of the next 10 or 11 years I was lucky enough to be able to move from a finance role into an operational role, and then moved up through the ranks of the organization. Early last year I was put in contact with David Pyle, and after a long courtship and a series of talking back and forth, I decided that moving to American Career College was the right step for my family and me.
When you talk to David and you listen to how he has grown the business from where it was to where it is today, and his vision for the future of American Career College and West Coast University, and being able to offer an entire career ladder to students from the entry level right up to the highest levels in the education space—all that was very attractive to me. It’s been a phenomenal experience for me up until this point.
But you’re a bean counter! We generally don’t trust bean counters with a leadership role!
We have an annual celebration around the holidays at which I made a bean counter joke; it fell so flat that I realized these people don’t know that I was a bean counter, or that I am a bean counter.
You’ve gotten over that.
Absolutely. I chose finance when I was at university. We didn’t really have the benefit of great career advising in the west of Ireland. I had an aunt who I love dearly and probably was one of the reasons why I got into finance, because she happened to be an accountancy teacher at my high school. It was probably as much by luck as anything else that I took accounting in high school and did very well at it. It was probably because of doing well at it and the encouragement from her that I decided to do finance and accounting in college.
In your leadership role, what do you do every day? What value do you bring to the position?
We have a great culture here of making sure that our students get what they need to be successful. My job is to make sure the people who work for us, the people who work for me, have the resources they need at their disposal. That’s on one side. The other is to make sure that we have a vision, to navigate what are quite turbulent waters at the moment and to grow the business, making sure that we continue our 34 years of providing great education to a population that, quite frankly, has been underserved by traditional education.
They’re not really underserved, but they are undereducated and challenged. So how do you help them bridge into a discipline?
The students who typically come to career colleges have various levels of educational ability. Our job is to work with each of those students, on an individual basis, to develop a road map for them to be able to become successful. If you look at what we’ve been able to do over the 30 odd years now, whether it be investing in a GED preparation program to help students gain a high school equivalency, or whether it’s the tutoring that we provide in our schools on an individual or a group basis, right from the get-go we make sure that we are reaching out to every single student that comes into American Career College. We try to tailor a roadmap for them to help them get through the program.
But getting through the program is only part of it. It’s building their confidence so that they are able to go out there and compete aggressively in the workplace. Having the technical skill set is only part of it. It’s also about building them up to be able to take those skill sets and apply them in the workforce, and go with confidence and vigor into an interview to get the job that they want.*
With the enrollment sizes you have, how can you do this on a one-to-one basis?
If you look at our schools, I believe we spend more on education than any other aspect of our business. We’re able to do that because we generate a much higher percentage of referrals from graduates and from existing students. Typically in this industry, a good benchmark is 25 percent referrals. Some of our campuses generate in excess of 40 percent.
If you’re spending less on marketing and admissions, it allows you to spend more on the other things. We spend more on education. We spend more on career services, which allows us to work on an individual basis with our students and our graduates, so that they’re able to be more competitive in the workforce. That creates a positive impression, and as such they refer us to their friends and families at a higher rate.
So we have this virtuous cycle that I’ve talked a lot about since I’ve joined here. We’re able to invest more and more in education because we have a great reputation. This organization has been at the forefront of innovation. If you visit our campuses, you’ll see that the money spent to make sure that really and truly industry standard or industry current equipment is there in front of our students on a daily basis is paying dividends.
I think the fact that we have the benefit of 34 years of continuous ownership means we’re able to take a long view as well. Investments and improvements in education don’t have to pay back in a quarter or six months or a year. When you look at the work that West Coast University is doing in the whole simulation experience—that involved a multimillion-dollar investment, and that may have a multiple year return. It might even be longer. American Career College and David Pyle, in particular, have prided themselves in not necessarily doing what’s expected. At some stage, when everybody is going left, you need to go right.
What has surprised you the most since coming here?
What has surprised me most is how open and transparent the organization is, or the lack of internal maneuvering for a particular point of view. The organization here is exceptional in that regard. We have two institutions: West Coast University and American Career College. I have not worked in a situation where two units that are competing in some ways for resources, work so collaboratively. West Coast has done phenomenal work on the use of simulation and ACC is now partnering with them to incorporate simulation into our campuses. We just opened a new simulation lab at our Anaheim campus a little while ago. It’s very advanced and forward leaning.
The amount of collaboration between the institutions and the administrative office has been very refreshing. If issues come to the table, they get resolved quickly. It’s like, “let’s get around the table; let’s hear what the one point of view is and what’s the other and let’s get together and make a decision.” If you walk around here, I’m sure you’ve seen it. There are just no walls. It’s all glass. If people are in having little powwows, everyone can see them. It promotes a culture of working together.
What’s your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge is understanding 34 years of the ACC culture, and then working to position it for growth. I think we have a wonderful history and a wonderful basis from which to grow. But my challenge over the coming months and years will be to take that history and position it so that we can move forward in a way that ensures that as we expand, we are able to maintain that unique bond that we have with our students.
So who is the keeper of the culture here?
Every employee, from top to bottom. David Pyle—our founder, our visionary —set the stage. But it is the responsibility of every employee, or associate as we refer to people here, to embody that, to give it their own special touch. Our culture is focused on being a student-centric and student-focused organization. It’s not just words. You hear lots of people out there saying they’re about students first. We live and breathe it every single day, whether it’s an admissions associate, a career services associate, whether it’s me visiting the school, or interacting with students on a daily basis. It’s the little things like just saying hello to people when you’re walking down the hall. It’s a very nurturing environment.
Our students may not have gotten that prior to coming to us. Going to college can be a daunting thing. We do anything that we can do to help students believe that they can do it…because the fact of the matter is, the students who come here do have the ability to graduate and the ability to be successful at a job; the reason they don’t is because they don’t believe they can. Anything that we can do as an organization, every interaction that anyone in the chain has, has the potential to impact that student—to build that student up a little bit more so that they have the confidence going into a test or into a job interview, to apply what they’ve learned. Having been a first in the family going through college, I know what it’s like to be navigating waters that people before you haven’t. That, for me, has a particular resonance.
But there’s also an expectation somewhere in the organization that you meet your numbers.
Of course. We are still a for-profit organization, but there are many ways to be a successful business. I talked to you about our philosophy with respect to how we invest in education. You can be successful by spending lots of money on admissions, enough on education and enough on career services— and you can make your bottom line. Or you can do it the way we do it, which is to spend a lot of money on education, and over time because of that, we build a great rapport and relationship with the community, with our graduates and our students, and that results in us not having to spend nearly as much in admissions. It’s not something that happens quickly; it’s something that you have to take a very long view of. But it is something we’re very proud of. We believe in making sure that we provide the best quality education that we possibly can.
What is your future vision? If we were having this conversation in five years, what will you have achieved?
I’m a huge believer in integrating advances in technology into the education delivery model. When you look at the revolution—and I think it’s appropriate to call it a revolution at this stage, with respect to the iPad or other tablet devices— and the impact that it is having today on education…my vision for American Career College is that in the next three to five years, every student coming into our institutions will have a mobile device, and we’ll have the ability to tailor educational delivery more and more to their unique needs. You’re never going to replace the value of a teacher or the value of a lecture. But we need to be able to augment that with technology and tools that a student can use when they’re in class, and when they’re out of class to interface with their fellow students or with their instructors, and to tailor learning specific to their needs.
I think the future from that perspective is phenomenal. I think we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. When you look at the apps that are being developed for the iPad…. I have a dear friend in Chicago who has an autistic son who was having difficulty communicating. There are apps that they have been using for the last six months that have allowed the child to be able to start communicating. That, to me, is potentially earth shattering and groundbreaking, just on a personal level because I know these people and it’s made such a difference in their lives. When you look at those advances and what is possible, I think it’s hugely exciting. We’ve had a couple of tough years in our industry. When you look at the possibilities ahead, if people are willing to embrace the advances that are coming, and willing to look at new things, and to focus on quality as opposed to just talking about it, I think the future is very, very bright.
Five years from now, we’ll be a larger organization. We’ll have expanded geographically. We’ll have expanded from a curriculum perspective. Probably most important, I believe we’ll have tailored our learning delivery to be more adaptive to the unique needs of each individual student. If we can execute that, I will be very happy.
We’ll continue our track record of being student-centric and providing our students with the best tools with which to compete in the workforce, because ultimately they’re coming to us to get ready for a new career path. If we’re not able to facilitate that, then we’re not doing our jobs.
Edited by Judi Ditzler and Celia D. Ffrench.
*ACC cannot guarantee employment.