The New Face of For-Profit Colleges

Harris Miller, chief of career college group, seeks to reach out to nonprofit colleges and Democrats on Capitol Hill.
February 5, 2007

Given that Harris N. Miller has spent most of his professional life working in high-tech fields, you'd expect him to lean toward metaphors and analogies with a 21st century spin. But when asked why he was interested in heading the country's main association of for-profit and career-oriented colleges, Miller reaches not for the buzzwords of techspeak but for the lexicon of the industrial world of his western Pennsylvania roots.

"People are the iron ore of the information technology economy," Miller said at a briefing Friday where he was introduced as the new president and chief executive of the Career College Association. That makes higher education – which gives people the knowledge and skills to be productive workers and citizens – “a critically important industry,” Miller said, and one he was eager to join.

In a wide-ranging interview, Miller discussed his aggressive goals for the association (“I threw 80 things at them I wanted to do in the first 100 days,” he said of his new staff), his willingness to work collaboratively with nonprofit higher education, and whether his strong Democratic credentials – he ran unsuccessfully for the Virginia U.S. Senate seat that James Webb ultimately won -- will help him work with the new leaders in Congress, among other things.

Miller had much to say, as well, about the nature and extent of the for-profit sector’s regulatory and reputational troubles, which, he noted, were not unlike those he’d had to deal with as president for 11 years of the Information Technology Association of America, the primary lobbying group for technology companies (“We had some bad apples in my membership, too – anybody remember WorldCom?”).

Jim Tolbert, who heads the Career College Association’s Board of Directors, described Miller as having an ideal mix of skills and experience in the areas of association management, work force development, higher education and government relations. As head of the information technology association, Miller worked closely with career colleges (many of which focus on technology), and on Friday, he spoke with surprising facility, for someone without a day’s experience on the job, about the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, transfer of academic credit, and the Education Department’s arcane rule making process for postsecondary education, among other things.

Miller, who undergraduate and master's degrees in political science, respectively, are from the University of Pittsburgh and Yale University (where he was ABD), described Congressional passage of legislation to renew the Higher Education Act, which was unfinished in the 109th Congress, as one of his top priorities at the CCA. Disputes over Higher Education Act provisions promoted by the Career College Association exacerbated longstanding tensions between for-profit colleges and the other sectors of higher education in 2005 and 2006, and led the career college group to withdraw from the American Council on Education, the umbrella group for higher education.

Career College Association leaders had put an ability to work with other higher education leaders high on their list of goals for their new chief, and Miller embraced that charge.

He said he believed that for-profit and traditional colleges share many common interests in the Higher Education Act – especially promoting higher levels of federal financial support – and that he hopes the groups’ mutual interest in “getting the legislation done” would allow them to work together better than they have in the recent past. “I’m going to be looking at how we can work as cooperatively with them as we can,” he said of the traditional college associations. “What’s at stake here is not a particular company or a particular sector.”

He acknowledged the skepticism with which many officials in nonprofit higher education view for-profit colleges – impressions, he said, that were in many cases “formed 20-some years ago,” at a time of soaring default rates and fly-by-night trade schools.

It’s not that the industry has wiped out those problems, Miller said; he acknowledged that several of the leading higher education companies continue to face regulatory and legal scrutiny for their financial aid and recruiting practices, including ITT Educational Services Inc., on whose board he sat for seven years (a three-year federal inquiry ended in 2005, he noted, with the U.S. attorney’s office in Texas “essentially saying, ‘Sorry, never mind,’" though the company did pay $725,000 that year to settle a False Claims Act lawsuit over financial aid overpayments in California).
But as for-profit higher education has matured, Miller said, peer pressure on the “bad apples” from the higher education companies that seek to do things the right way has grown, in recognition that abuse “hurts the industry’s reputation…. There’s much more of a focus on the importance of playing by the rules.”

Miller said the Career College Association’s members have many “positive stories to tell,” including the sector’s strong record of enrolling and graduating minority students, at a time when policy makers are deeply worried about underenrollments of black, Hispanic and other minority students in postsecondary education. The association and its members need to do a better job of getting those sorts of messages out, said Miller.

One key audience for Miller will be the new Democratic leaders in Congress, who have tended to view career colleges more skeptically than the Republicans who have controlled Congress for more than a decade (and continue to dominate the executive branch). Miller’s background as not just a Democrat, but a left-leaning Democrat (a 2006 Washington Post  profile of his Senate primary campaign described him as “as proudly liberal as Al Franken”), will probably help him at least a little when he visits the Hill to promote the career colleges’ interest. (The profile also described him as "charismatic as a toaster" and "wonkier than Al Gore.")

But CCA leaders insist that Miller’s political pedigree did not play a dominant role in his selection; “we weren’t hiring for a two-year window,” said Tolbert, the group’s board chairman, noting that the political landscape could be reshuffled again in November 2008.

And Miller himself said that his past job required him to “work pretty closely and effectively with both sides of the aisle,” though he did not try to hide his leanings. “I’m not going to tell you I was George Bush’s closest friend, or [former Speaker of the House] Denny Hastert’s closest friend.”

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