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For-profits should get ahead of accountability push, experts say

Ride the Regulatory Wave
December 15, 2011

WASHINGTON -- For-profit colleges should be leaders in measuring student learning and making the data public, said a panel of experts at the annual meeting of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, held here today.

Federal scrutiny of higher education won’t stop at for-profits, the speakers said, in a discussion that included a few surprising moments, such as praise for a community college and a nuanced compliment for federal regulations on "gainful employment."

“We are moving toward some kind of general accountability,” said Michael B. Goldstein, a lawyer who heads the higher education practice at the Washington law firm Dow Lohnes and who moderated the panel. “Something has to happen in terms of measuring value.”

Peter P. Smith agreed, and told the audience of for-profit college leaders that it would be a smart tactical move to stay a step ahead of the accountability push.

“They’re going to run you out of town anyway,” said Smith, who is senior vice president of academic strategies and development for Kaplan Higher Education. “Get in front and make it look like a parade.”

Smith is a big thinker in the industry who straddles several worlds, having served as founding president of a public university and a community college, and as a member of Congress from Vermont, before coming to Kaplan. By aggressively using learning outcomes to shape academic offerings, he said, for-profits could improve their retention rates and gain a competitive advantage.

And given the regulatory pressure on the industry, it’s the right time to push forward, Smith said. “In an odd way, we have a great moment of opportunity.”

Smith stopped short of saying anything nice about gainful employment -- unlike his fellow panelist, Robert Lytle, who co-leads the Parthenon Group’s Education Center of Excellence. Lytle said the thought process behind the federal rules are “fundamental and sound,” because colleges should take responsibility for the employability of their graduates. It's a safe bet that few in the audience agreed.

Lytle said improving job placement rates, as well as tracking whether graduates can thrive in their jobs, can help colleges develop better ties with employers.

“It’s a very positive, reinforcing cycle,” he said.

The panelists agreed that for-profit institutions might be able to move faster than their nonprofit peers in adopting broad assessment strategies, in part because they lack shared governance structures. Faculty resistance at traditional colleges can be cumbersome, they said, and isn’t as much of an issue at for-profits.

“There is a leverage here that doesn’t exist at the University of Chicago,” said Goldstein.

Even so, the examples panelists chose of student outcomes done right came from the nonprofit sector. Smith singled out Western Governors University for competency-based learning. And he praised Valencia College, which won the inaugural Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence earlier this week, for its “astonishing” curricular support and student assessment model.

 

 

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