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Unusual Gathering of For-Profit Colleges

February 11, 2011

With their institutions under increasing scrutiny on many fronts, leaders of for-profit colleges have responded in many ways -- including lots of aggressive political lobbying and some forceful legal actions.

On Thursday, a group of the institutions took a slightly more positive tack: talking among themselves -- and with leaders of sector-crossing national higher education associations -- about how they can respond to the concerns about their integrity and improve their students' learning experiences. At a closed two-day meeting at (of all places) the Princeton Club in New York City, the presidents of 32 regionally accredited career colleges gathered to discuss their common concerns and how they might work together to address them.

The meeting did not take place under the aegis of any existing group or, at least for now, with any specific, stated goal; a spokeswoman for the organizer, Dario A. Cortes, president of New York's Berkeley College, said that the gathering had emerged from a series of discussions he had had with individual presidents about a need for a "national conversation" among the institutions. Whether it eventually leads to more meetings or some kind of common plan of action is still uncertain, said the spokeswoman, Laura Jewell.

But already the meeting differed from many other recent gatherings of for-profit college officials. First, it included officials from two national groups, the American Council on Education and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, that are dominated by traditional nonprofit institutions but include regionally accredited for-profit colleges among their members. It also included representatives of some of the regional accrediting agencies themselves.

And second, Thursday's meeting contained "no discussion" of how the institutions might lobby against or otherwise fight the heightened regulatory pressure or political scrutiny they are facing, said Terry W. Hartle, who heads the government and public affairs arm of the American Council on Education and attended the meeting.

Yes, there was a lot of talk about allegations of admissions abuses that have been leveled against some for-profit colleges in a U.S. Senate committee's inquiry into the sector, among other issues of particular interest to this set of colleges, Hartle said. But much of the discussion was about concerns that these colleges share with some of their nonprofit peers, such as students who enroll not "ready to do college-level work," Hartle said. "The discussion was candid and frank, and not terribly angry either."

Just how much common ground these colleges can find, and what it might lead them to do -- sponsor research on learning practices, for instance -- remains to be seen. While all of them are accredited by one of the seven regional accreditors (as opposed to the national agencies that accredit the vast majority of for-profit colleges), there is enormous variation among them, from massive publicly traded companies like the University of Phoenix and DeVry University, to 9,000-student institutions like Berkeley, to specialty institutions with under 1,500 students, like the College of Westchester and Harrington College of Design.

 

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