The Power and Purpose of Higher Education, with Brian Jones, the President of Strayer University

“If we can help people build a foundation through education, then we give people the power to achieve their own version of success.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Jones, the President of Strayer University and founding team member of Strayer@Work, a business unit focused on corporate skills development.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

My work at Strayer reflects a deeply personal commitment to the transformative power of higher education. I am a fourth generation college graduate. My great-grandmother, a proud African American woman, graduated from Wilberforce College in Ohio in 1908 and my grandmother also graduated from the same institution. My father, however, graduated from high school and decided that college wasn’t for him. He married my mother shortly after they graduated from high school, and worked at a local car dealership washing cars. When my mother gave birth to me at the age of 19, she urged my father to get a “real job” to better support his family. He went to work at a large insurance company loading boxes of closed files into storage. He soon decided that he wanted a “sit down job” as opposed to the “stand up jobs” he’d been working with his high school diploma.

With the support of his employer, he went to school at night, ultimately earning a degree while working and supporting our family. My father continued to receive promotions and later earned his MBA while going to school at night. He ultimately became the first African American executive of that same large insurance company. My father’s commitment to getting his education while working to support our family left a deep impression on me. My work at Strayer allows me to give back by empowering people, like my father, to take control of their lives and make a change for themselves and future generations, through higher education.

Does your school have a particular academic emphasis?

Strayer is designed to meet the needs of working adults, who make up a large and growing percentage of students earning a degree today. To that end, we are focused on ensuring that earning a degree is affordable and accessible and will help our students further their career goals, whether that means changing careers or advancing in their current role.

Meanwhile, as college tuition has increased 62 percent in the past ten years, we’ve reduced our tuition by 20 percent. We help students maximize their credits so that they can progress to their degree faster, at a lower cost, and we offer credit for previous work experience and related higher education course work.

Has the role of a college education, or the value of a college education changed over the past 30 years? Can you explain?

Absolutely. The cost of a college degree has increased more than 1,000 percent over the last thirty years. While a college degree was once accessible to most Americans, today the cost is prohibitive to many, and far too many are buried in school loan debt. More than 44 million Americans owe over $1.4 trillion in higher education loans — -that number has doubled in less than a decade.

Yet, while the cost of college has skyrocketed, a degree is more important than ever before. It is estimated that by 2020, two thirds of all jobs will require a post-secondary degree. And, those who earn a bachelor’s degree make 84% more over a lifetime than high school graduates.

Higher education providers need to do more to make college education more accessible and affordable.

Are there alumni of your school that you are most proud of?

Our alumni have gone on to be public administrators, healthcare professionals, business entrepreneurs and financial and technical experts. For instance, after Sareeta Spriggs earned her MBA degree, she was appointed as the deputy director at the Executive Office of DC Mayor Muriel Bowser. Valerie Jenkins-Falade, now a director of patient access at The George Washington University Hospital, earned her master’s in health administrative science. And, Jonathan Stewart now is the CEO of Stewart Secure Technologies after completing his master’s in computer and information systems.

Our alumni are hardworking and ambitious, pursing their degrees despite the competing priorities and obstacles in their lives. I am proud of all of Strayer’s graduates.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I believe we need to lead by example. I believe in the promise of our country. And I believe that ours truly is a land of opportunity. But it takes leadership from educators and policymakers to ensure that all can realize that promise. If we can help people build a foundation through education, then we give people the power to achieve their own version of success.

That’s been my goal throughout my career. I’ve been fortunate to serve at the U.S. Department of Education, and my volunteer service has focused on serving underserved communities. I chair the board for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and I also work with two Washington, DC-based charter schools that serve low-income students and those who’ve faced serious trauma — from homelessness to abuse.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a College President” and why?

  1. That there would be so much passion around the work that we do.

I am surrounded by faculty members and administrators who obsess about our students’ short and long-term successes. I have yet to encounter a colleague who sees what we do as ‘just another job.’

2. That there is so much diversity among students in higher education today.

The nature of today’s student forces us to think differently. We’re not all alike. The students we serve are very unlike the traditional idea of college students. Our students have little interest in grassy quads and “finding themselves.” They’re here for really practical reasons — typically, job related — which forces us to be more directly in sync with the practical needs of our students.

3. That despite the diversity of the students we serve, the challenges across institutions are remarkably similar.

As we serve students who come to us with competing responsibilities and many demands on their time and distractions, we have a challenge to figure out how to keep students engaged; how to get them excited about the content in their classes (and excited to dive into it); and how to keep them continuing from term to term, on to completion. As I talk to other leaders of all kinds of institutions — community colleges, private institutions, big public colleges — we’re all wrestling with that same challenge of how to get students off to a good start, engage them in the classroom and keep them on track to graduation.

4. That a major motivator for many working adult students like those we serve is the desire to be a role model.

Our students want to set an example for a child or a grandchild, and I find that amazingly inspiring. Going back to college is about setting a goal and completing it, and that teaches a priceless life lesson to those who watch someone achieve it. It’s an important reminder that education is like tossing a pebble into a pond, where the ripple of opportunity touches so many more lives than just those in our classrooms. It’s a major responsibility we’re undertaking here and we have an obligation to work like crazy every day to make sure we’re doing our absolute best for our students.

5. You really do have to wear the silly hat at Commencements; there are no two ways around it.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

I’d have to say Howard Schultz. Prior to joining Strayer, I spent two years laboring as a venture-backed entrepreneur seeking to bring the programs of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) online. Our seed investor was Maveron, a Seattle-based venture firm co-founded by Schultz. Schultz’s approach to business and to serving consumers is one I seek to emulate — building a customer-centric, mission-driven, values-based business. Like Schultz, as the leader of an institution, I work every day to “pour our heart” into the service we deliver to our students.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!