Stepping Out

With sector under continued attack, 20 for-profit colleges -- all regionally accredited -- seek to distinguish themselves with increased transparency.
July 20, 2011

In the year or so since Education Secretary Arne Duncan famously described the Obama administration's intensifying scrutiny of for-profit colleges as an effort to rein in "a few bad actors," it's fair to say that nary an institution has come forward to identify itself as one of those. There have also been few attempts by for-profit institutions to distance themselves from peers they deem to be less worthy -- partly because colleges in the sector have been impressively united in fighting the Education Department's rules, and perhaps partly because calling oneself a "good actor" might seem a bit self-serving.

But all of a sudden, groups of career colleges are rushing to team up to align themselves as accountable, transparent and all the other things that consumer advocates and critical policy makers have been accusing the worst of them of not being. The latest to emerge is a collection of 20 regionally accredited for-profit institutions that have adopted a "pledge of public accountability," under which they will publish information about themselves (prices, curriculums, and faculty qualifications) and their students (debt levels, loan repayment, and employment outcomes), with the goal of making the institutions "more transparent to students before they enroll."

The document known as "the accord" -- helpful shorthand for the document's bulky full title, "The Accord of the Regionally Accredited Proprietary Institutions of Higher Education in the U.S." -- was signed by about half of the institutions whose presidents attended a February meeting in New York called by Dario Cortes, president of Berkeley College. Cortes and other leaders of the effort described it as an attempt to bring together like-minded institutions, and while they didn't specifically say it, they suggested that the regionally accredited colleges had different priorities and goals than do other for-profit colleges, most of which are accredited by one of several national agencies that specialize in career education.

"It represented a smaller segment of for-profit higher education that probably had a more common alignment," said Wallace E. Boston, president and chief executive officer of American Public University System. Given that the fully online institution focuses on granting degrees, rather than the career training that many nationally accredited colleges emphasize, Boston said he and other APUS officials "felt much more aligned with this particular group" than with the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, the primary group of for-profit institutions.

The group gathered in New York was hardly monolithic; it included large publicly traded companies like American Public, Strayer University, and the University of Phoenix, and small family-owned or local companies like Rasmussen College and Bay State College. The presidents in attendance were joined by the leaders of three regional accrediting bodies and by top officials from groups that represent nonprofit higher education, the American Council on Education and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. The session was moderated by two longtime scholars (and éminences grises) of higher education, Robert Zemsky of the University of Pennsylvania and David Breneman of the University of Virginia.

Out of the meeting, which unlike many such gatherings focused on academic matters rather than regulatory concerns or lobbying tactics, Zemsky wrote a document that served as the basis for the "accord," which 20 of the institutions signed. In an interview Tuesday, Zemsky described it as an attempt by the institutions to commit to "truth in advertising" as they recruit students. "I see this as recognition of the need to be transparent -- more as a commitment to transparency than a specific list of things."

Most of what the signatories have committed to releasing -- data about what students will pay and receive in financial aid; the employment and licensure prospects of graduates -- is either already or soon will be required by federal laws or requirements. Some of it -- like the "names and academic qualifications of all full-time faculty members" and "the telephone number of the institution" -- seems like the sort of of information that every institution would reveal as a matter of course. But in the highly competitive, sometimes secretive world of for-profit higher education, it has not been standard practice for institutions to publish lists of their faculty members, as recent controversies have shown.

Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, which has vigorously supported the Education Department's toughened scrutiny of for-profit higher education, said she was "underwhelmed" by the group's commitments, given that so much of the data they've promised to make public is already required. "The fact that you need an accord to provide your institution's contact information says a lot about where this sector is," she said.

Cortes, Berkeley's president, conceded that the group had begun with the "low-hanging fruit, with basic information" about the institutions, as a way to "get the ball rolling, so instead of simply defending ourselves, we can talk about what we do well." Cortes said that some of the institutions he approached that had not signed the accord eventually would, when they got board approval, while others did not sign because they thought it "didn't go far enough, or they were already doing what the accord included."

Alternative to the Accord

Some of the institutions that were at the New York meeting opted not to sign the accord, their officials said, because they were in discussions to participate in a self-regulatory system being drafted by the Coalition for Educational Success, a lobbying group for for-profit colleges. It has involved high-profile politicians like the former governors of New Jersey (Thomas Kean) and Pennsylvania (Ed Rendell) and academics such as Jonathan Fanton and Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot.

"We appreciate Berkeley College organizing the event and agree that private sector institutions need to work together more closely to explore and disseminate best practices," Mark Spencer, senior director for corporate communications for Career Education Corp., said in an e-mailed statement. Career Education's Briarcliff College was at the New York meeting. "While we support the spirit of the accord, we’re focusing our efforts on standards being developed by a broader coalition of private sector schools that would apply to both regionally and nationally accredited institutions and include rigorous third-party validation."

Penny Lee, the group's managing director, said in a statement that the Standards of Conduct and Transparency the group is developing will "go beyond existing federal, state and accreditation regulations and guidelines to determine how all institutions of higher education, not just career colleges, can best serve students." She said the system will have an "independent, third-party enforcement mechanism to ensure strict adherence."

The coalition's fledgling mechanism and the accord adopted by the regionally accredited colleges join the expanded code of conduct that the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities adopted last September.

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