President of For-Profit University Beckons Students to Walk Through 'Door of Opportunity'

Len Spoden Photography

Michael A. Plater
November 26, 2012

Michael A. Plater doesn't play up his Ivy League credentials when talking with students at Strayer University, the sprawling for-profit university he now heads.

Instead he's more likely to recount how, as the son of a single mother, he attended public schools in Washington and landed a scholarship that changed his life.

Or how exhausted he was some days pursuing a doctorate while working full time, with a wife and two toddlers at home.

"I know what it's like to juggle working, going to school, and raising a family," Mr. Plater, 56, says. "A lot of my students can relate to me as a role model, and that's inspirational both for me and for them."

Mr. Plater is one of at least two new presidents of for-profit universities who moved from the public sector this fall. The other is Richard L. Pattenaude, president of Ashford University and chancellor emeritus of the University of Maine system.

Mr. Plater joined Strayer in 2010 as provost. He became interim president last year and president in September. The university has 99 campuses in 23 states and the District of Columbia. About half of its students take classes online.

Although it's a different kind of university from those he attended, Strayer offers the same opportunity to transform lives, Mr. Plater says. "People just need an opportunity, and they need to walk through the door of opportunity when it opens."

That happened for him at age 14, when a high-school guidance counselor helped him win a scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy. He went on to earn a bachelor's degree in economics from Harvard University and an M.B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

After several years as a corporate financial analyst, Mr. Plater returned to the classroom, earning a doctorate in American studies from the College of William & Mary while also serving as director of financial aid and admissions at the college's business school.

He went on to teach business at the University of Florida and sociology at Brown University before heading to North Carolina A&T State University as dean of arts and sciences.

Switching to a for-profit institution provided Mr. Plater with a "laser focus" on issues he'd become passionate about. Questions of access and opportunity loom large at a college where the average age of students is 35, nearly 70 percent are female, and over half are African-American or Hispanic.

"If we in this country are going to be successful, we have to have an educated work force," he says. "Otherwise we'll end up with a permanent group of individuals who are not able to enjoy all the fruits of a knowledge-based economy."

The flexible schedules that programs like Strayer offer are key, Mr. Plater says. A nurse with changing shifts might take evening classes during one quarter and study online the next. A soldier who is deployed can shift from in-class to online courses.

Opening doors to working adults is an aspect of the job he enjoys. And leading for-profit university allows Mr. Plater to focus on academics without having to worry about fund raising. "I don't know what a donor looks like these days," he says.

For-profit universities have been criticized for charging relatively high tuition and leaving many students with hefty debts and no jobs.

But Mr. Plater says Strayer's three-year default rate on federal student loans, 13.9 percent, is just slightly above the national average, 13.4 percent, for all colleges.

He adds that the $65,000 cost of a bachelor's degree at Strayer is "in line with the cost for a state school and far less than what a private college costs."

While enrollment growth has slowed, the university is continuing to offer new programs as employers demand new skills. "Rather than saying we're going to have a new degree because a group of faculty says it's good to have," Mr. Plater says, "we need to ask, 'Is there a need in the marketplace for that kind of degree?'"

Charlotte Beason, chairwoman of the Board of Trustees, says Mr. Plater's wide-ranging background in both public and private institutions was a plus. "Aside from his impressive academic credentials, he just had a keen insight into adult learners and folks who were working and supporting families," she says.

The other new president of a for-profit institution, Mr. Pattenaude, 66, brings experience presiding during financially challenging times at the University of Maine system, where he pushed for expanded online enrollments as one way to cope with state budget cuts and declines in the state's college-age population.

His expertise in accreditation matters will also help as Ashford University, which is owned by Bridgepoint Education Inc., works to preserve its regional accreditation.

Mr. Pattenaude, who declined an interview request by The Chronicle, served as chairman of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.