Community colleges have been the target of attacks from the for-profit education sector lately. Most prominently, on the eve of last month’s much-anticipated White House Summit on Community Colleges , one marketing firm released a fiery report  accusing community colleges of “unsavory recruitment practices” and of offering students “poorer-than-expected academic quality, course availability, class scheduling, job placement and personal attention.”
Now, the community college sector is having its say. Tuesday, the American Association of Community Colleges released its latest quarterly policy brief , which “examines some of the variables that differentiate community colleges from for-profit institutions … in terms of oversight, service and financing.”
Christopher M. Mullin, author of the brief and the association’s program director for policy analysis, writes that the brief is intended “not to win a debate or to suggest public policies that might logically emanate from those differences, but to show why commonly drawn comparisons between community colleges and for-profit institutions are far less meaningful than some might suggest.”
In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Mullin said the report was not intended to be a “response” to any other study or report. Still, given the intense debate surrounding regulation of for-profit education  in Washington, Mullin said it is important to “clarify some things” to the association’s member colleges.
The primary difference between the two sectors, the brief says, is oversight. Whereas community colleges are governed by publicly elected or appointed boards of trustees, for-profit institutions are owned “either by individuals, partnerships, or collaboratives or are corporations that may be publicly traded.” Publicly traded for-profit institutions, the brief continues, “have grown in size and prominence and begun to dominate the sector.” For example, in the fall of 2008, 10 of the largest publicly traded institutions enrolled about half of all students in the for-profit sector.
The two sectors also serve different populations in different ways. For instance, community colleges have long enrolled the largest number of students of any sector in higher education. In fall 2008, community colleges enrolled 44 percent of all undergraduates in higher education — about 7.3 million students.
By comparison, enrollment at for-profit institutions is much lower, but has grown substantially in the past decade or so. In fall of 2008, for-profit institutions enrolled more than 1.5 million undergraduate students. Ten years earlier, they enrolled only 334,070 undergraduates. Most of the growth in for-profit education, the report says, is driven by increasing online delivery. Mullin writes that the move toward online education has skyrocketed since 2006, when the Higher Education Act’s 50 percent rule — which held that at least half of an institution's offerings had to be classroom-based — was eliminated. At the University of Phoenix and Colorado Technical University, for example, 77 percent and 85 percent of enrollments, respectively, are online students.
Enrollment status is also a point of departure between the two sectors. Most community college students — about 60 percent — attend part-time. Mullin said he expected to find similar percentages at for-profit institutions, given these colleges’ “narrative that they teach working adults.” He was surprised to find that 89 percent of students at two-year for-profit institutions, 86 percent at less-than-two-year for-profit colleges, and 73 percent at four-year for-profit institutions enroll full-time.
Though Mullin admits it is hard to define and measure “success” at the community college level — given that a pure graduation rate is a misleading figure for many sectors of higher education — he attempts to compare completion rates between the two sectors in a consistent manner. For example, “when transfer rates are included in graduation rate analyses,” community colleges and two-year institutions have completion rates of 40 percent and 61 percent, respectively.
Finally, the brief takes into consideration the ways in which the financing of institutions differs between the two sectors. More than three million Pell Grant recipients are attending community college this academic year, accounting for about 35 percent of all Pell Grant dollars awarded. Students at for-profit institutions receive 25 percent of all Pell Grant funds (a figure that continues to grow), reflecting the fact that a much higher percentage of students at for-profit institutions receive Pell Grants compared with students at community colleges.
The brief also notes that “for-profit institutions are heavily dependent on tuition” and that “this tuition is overwhelmingly paid for by the federal Title IV student aid programs.” Sixty-two percent of the 1,889 for-profit institutions that received Title IV funds received more than 60 percent of their revenue from them. At the five largest for-profit providers, this figure reaches up to 77 percent.
The report also takes a look at the lavish profits garnered by many for-profit institutions.
“Sixteen companies with for-profit colleges investigated by the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions were found to have made $2.7 billion in profits in 2009,” the report reads. “These profits could have funded the entire 2008-2009 state contribution to community [college] systems in Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New York and Ohio combined. To put it another way, if those profits had been applied to community colleges, every student enrolled at a community college in fall 2009 could have received $321 — enough to pay for a three-credit course with nearly $65 left over for books.”
Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College, in New York City, and a frequent critic of the for-profit sector , applauded the brief, saying that more community college advocates need to be aware of how their institutions differ from their for-profit competitors. She also noted how the brief’s release compares to the barrage of lobbying  done by the for-profit sector this fall as it tried to dissuade the Department of Education from considering “gainful employment” regulations for its institutions.
“When you compare all of that lobbying to one small, lovely, written report, you have a sense of the David versus Goliath battle that’s going on here,” said Mellow, emphasizing the brief’s observation that less than 3 percent of the average community college budget is spent on advertising, while about 31 percent of the average for-profit institutional budget is directed toward recruiting and marketing.
Advocates for the for-profit sector took issue with the brief.
Harris N. Miller, president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, which represents for-profit institutions, said he was mostly bothered by “some of the verbiage” used in the brief. He said certain aspects of the brief have a condescending tone toward for-profit institutions.
“There’s this jab in there that basically says that community colleges don’t need to make a profit,” Miller said. “Well, everybody needs to make a profit. It’s just that they call it a surplus instead. There’s just this holier-than-thou attitude for the for-profit sector. … The report also doesn’t recognize, for instance, that most of the profits made in our sector are used to reinvest and add capacity. That, among other things, is why we’re able to grow so fast.”