Out of the Doghouse
In January, it was the subject of a "60 Minutes" exposé of for-profit higher education. But earlier this month, Brooks College announced that its probation from its accreditor had been lifted after just over a year.
The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges placed Brooks on probation in June 2004. It cited dilapidated facilities, lack of academic rigor and misrepresentation of services in recruiting. Without accreditation, a college's students lose access to federal financial aid. In January, "60 Minutes" broadcast the results of an investigation of the Long Beach, Cal. college and spoke with former students and staff members who detailed a litany of problems. To recruit students, the show said, the college grossly misrepresented graduation and job placement rates, and graduates' starting salaries.
One admissions representative told "60 Minutes" that people in her position would tell prospective students that they would, “have a 95 percent chance that you are gonna have a job paying $35,000 to $40,000 a year by the time they are done,” when the actual starting salary was under $11 an hour, according to the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. But when the association's evaluation committee came back for another visit in October 2004, its members found a new president who was beginning to overhaul every aspect of the institution. Based on a follow-up visit in June 2005, the commission decided to restore full accreditation.
Barbara Beno, commission president, said Al Nederhood, the new president at Brooks, who took over after the probation warning, went the extra mile in trying to restore integrity. “He personally brought the material used by recruiters and advisers, and we went over with him what we thought were the problems that led to students receiving inaccurate information,” Beno said.
Over the last year, Brooks spent $3 million to upgrade facilities, put in place entry tests to identify students who need extra help right away, and created committees made of students and employees to evaluate areas from training to course development. Nederhood, a former California public school teacher, noted that advisers and recruiters are now given extensive training, forced to sign contracts pledging their honesty, and are sometimes monitored as they deal with current and prospective students.
Nederhood acknowledged that enrollments dropped from over 1,000 to around 800 because of the bad publicity, but said polls of student satisfaction have jumped. “One of the things we have made a real strong commitment to is the integrity issue. We’ve developed extensive training for every level of organization,” he said, adding that he hopes to make oversight committees a fixture of the college.
But critics feel that the for-profit arm of higher education needs extra scrutiny from regulators, and that the "60 Minutes" show just captured part of what's wrong with for-profit higher education.
"They’re in the business of turning a buck to show shareholders they’re profitable. Education is a secondary consequence. Whereas in traditional institutions of higher learning it is the goal,” said Bill Scheuerman, president of United University Professions, an American Federation of Teachers union that represents nearly 30,000 faculty members in the State University of New York.
Scheuerman has been lobbying Congress to keep oversight of the for-profit sector high, and the "60 Minutes" show on Brooks has been frequently cited in those efforts. He said that because fraud is more prevalent in for-profit higher education, federal financial aid would be best used elsewhere. “That’s taxpayer money and there’s a limited amount,” he said. “And if [a college] violates trust, don’t slap them on the wrist and let them do a full court press a year later. I don’t even see how it’s possible to establish integrity in a year.”
Beno agreed that credibility is more often at problem at for-profit institutions, even though traditional institutions striving to increase enrollment may have similar issues. Beno said one difficulty in oversight of for-profits, is that financial documents are Greek to the evaluation panels that are made up of people from the nonprofit higher education arena.
The Career Education Corporation, which runs Brooks, gives evaluators audit reports for the whole company, when what they really need are the financial statistics for individual colleges run by the company, she said. “Our commission has been grappling with taking a better look at the financials of an institution,” she said. “They’ve been giving us, in essence, audits at the corporate level, which are unintelligible to us.”
Beno said the issue will be a topic of discussion at a meeting of regional accreditors this summer.
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