Raining on the Parade

As community colleges are celebrated at White House summit, for-profit colleges go on the offensive.
October 5, 2010

WASHINGTON -- As community colleges take center stage today at a White House summit, a group representing for-profit colleges is taking aim at community colleges.

In a report released Monday, a marketing firm working for the Coalition for Educational Success, an advocacy group for several privately held for-profit companies, argues that community colleges engage in “unsavory recruitment practices” and offer students “poorer-than-expected academic quality, course availability, class scheduling, job placement and personal attention.”

The report crystallizes arguments from the for-profit sector that community colleges -- perceived as the Obama administration’s preferred set of institutions to offer work force training -- are ill-equipped to serve the students they already enroll and would struggle in taking on larger enrollments. The document's release just ahead of today’s summit is intended to tarnish the event’s luster and the praise for community colleges that will come from President Obama and others, and it emerges amid the for-profit sector's aggressive lobbying, advertising and rallying against the U.S. Department of Education's proposed regulations on "gainful employment" and a Senate panel's investigation of the sector.

“Community colleges play a vital role in the American economy,” said Jean Norris, managing partner of Norton|Norris, the firm that produced the report. “However, they are not the only choice. Community colleges have some systemic issues that really need to be addressed and the singular focus on the problems of the career colleges is a waste of time and money and forgets the institutions that serve a much larger number of students.”

For one part of the report, Norton|Norris sent “secret shoppers” to meet with admissions officers at 15 community colleges and found that none would provide graduation rates, even when asked. In the report, these findings are likened to those identified by the Government Accountability Office on undercover visits to for-profit colleges, where investigators were told they didn't have to repay loans and encouraged to lie on financial aid forms. The firm also surveyed current for-profit college students who had been enrolled at community colleges, asking them to compare their satisfaction levels at the two different kinds of institutions. In all but one category -- price -- the for-profit colleges came out on top.

David S. Baime, senior vice president of government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges, characterized the report as “garbage” and said it was yet another attempt by the for-profit sector to fight scrutiny from the Obama administration and those on Capitol Hill. “It probably makes sense as a sort of PR strategy to try to run us down and sort of boost themselves,” he said.

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Norris insisted that it was not her aim to attack community colleges, but rather to “highlight issues beyond the career college sector that are the same ones the career college sector is being attacked for.”

At last week’s Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing questioning for-profit colleges’ student outcomes and student debt, Senator Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.) accused the committee’s chair, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), of examining the sector without looking at how it fits into the broader landscape of U.S. colleges and universities. “I agree there is clearly a problem in higher education -- now you’ll notice I didn’t limit that comment to for-profit schools,” Enzi said. “It’s naïve to think these problems are limited to just the for-profit sector. We’ve been looking at this in a vacuum.”

Researchers said that while some of the report’s findings could be accurate, the study itself is of questionable value.

“We can’t call this research,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, an assistant professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “The for-profits are under attack and this report is being paid for by for-profits. We need to be asking many of these questions, but a report like this one isn’t providing meaningful answers.”

In the report's introduction, Norton|Norris concedes a string of flaws with the report. The sample surveyed for the study “was one of convenience and may not represent all student experiences,” the report said. The students given a chance to respond to the survey were ones who withdrew or graduated from a nonprofit college before enrolling at a for-profit, admittedly meaning that “bias may be present” among respondents. The response rate was 10 percent. And the survey was "custom-designed and thereby not previously proven valid and reliable.”

Thomas R. Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College, said he saw the report as “a tactic” for for-profit institutions in their battle against greater regulation. “Certainly from [for-profit colleges’] perspective it would be reasonable to try to put out an argument that says there are many problems with community colleges.”

Nonetheless, Bailey said, some of its findings are true. “Community colleges have low resources, the counselor-to-student ratio is extremely low. It’s not surprising that students are not very well-informed about their options at community colleges. But, again, I don’t think we can look at this as a reliable document.”


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