WASHINGTON – Hundreds (or was it thousands?) of for-profit college students and employees gathered on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol Building here Wednesday morning for what was billed as the sector’s first-ever student rally.
A crowd that organizers estimated at 1,500 to 2,500 people from 26 states, as close as Virginia and Maryland, and as far as Florida and California, gathered for a rally coordinated by the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities as a chance for the students “to proclaim the absolute need for student choice in selecting a college or university,” said Harris N. Miller, the group’s president. “Today’s rally will not convince everyone about the value of career education, about the impressive nature of your achievement, about the strength of your motivations or about your drive to succeed. They do not know you.”
Students stood in a grassy field on the west side of the Capitol for 90 minutes as Miller and a string of Congressmen took the stage. It was a counterpoint to the less-favorable view of the sector likely to emerge from today's Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee  hearing. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) will unveil data on student success and revenue sources collected from 30 institutions, and will call experts on student debt and access, as well as a whistle blowing for-profit employee and a disappointed student, to testify.
“It takes CEOs and it takes engineers and it takes presidents of things to get things done, but they can’t do anything without you,” said Representative Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) , a longtime for-profit college booster. “You can’t run the nursing home without someone who makes sure that the patients are properly tended for. You can’t run the hotel if the reservation system doesn’t work correctly…. America can’t work without you and frankly you can’t work if this proposed rule goes through, and that’s the reason why it will not happen.”
Three Florida Democrats -- Representatives Ted Deutch, Alan Grayson and Alcee Hastings -- also spoke, as did several Republicans: Representatives Brett Guthrie (Ky.) and John Mica (Fla.), and Senator Jim Risch (Idaho).
Some students were in scrubs, others in striped mechanics' coveralls, most in jeans. Over them, they wore navy blue T-shirts with white text spelling out the motto of the day, “My Education. My Job. My Choice.” When prompted by speakers, some chanted that phrase or applauded.
Out of more than a dozen speakers, only two were students -- Marilyn Pitrelli, a culinary arts associate degree student at Stratford University, in Virginia, and Dawn Connor, president of Students for Academic Choice, a group that has emerged in recent months to speak out against critics of the sector. “Your presence and energy sends a message to Washington that we want to preserve equality of academic choice in our nation’s system of higher education,” said Connor , who is a veterinary technology student at Globe University in Wisconsin. "Our goal is to help preserve the hard work we have put into our education and the value of our achievements.”
College executives in suits, some wearing APSCU’s T-shirts over shirtsleeves, circled the core of the student crowd. At any time during the rally, a few dozen students sat on stone walls at the edge of the field, talking and smoking cigarettes.
Rich Williams, higher education advocate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, estimated the crowd to be far smaller than APSCU said it was. “It seemed like maybe 300-500 people to me,” he said. As the crowd-counting controversy at Glenn Beck’s recent rally  or President Obama’s inauguration  suggests, figuring out just how many people are standing on a patch of grass in Washington is difficult and highly subjective.
Williams said that, as a student advocate, he thought “it was great to see students coming down and being so passionate.” But, he said, “they’re overworked, they’re loaded with debt and … they deserve a better deal.”
The Students' Voices
In interviews at the rally, students said they didn’t know much about the policy debate over for-profit colleges, but were concerned about losing access to financial aid or to their institutions.
Aryn Northrop, an 18-year-old from Maryland, said she and her classmates at Medix School have “chosen this, we’ve decided it’s worth it to take out loans to get vocational training.” Not all students, she said, “want to go to a regular college and it’s not fair that we should lose opportunities to build careers.”
Another Medix student, Nikki Keller, is a single mother who had tried taking classes at a community college but needed greater flexibility. “There was no working around if something didn’t work for you,” she said. “Medix is willing to help.”
The women were standing with a teacher from Medix who congratulated them on the interview as this reporter walked away. “Good job,” he said.
One Medix student wrote in a Facebook status update on Wednesday morning: “going to d.c. to protest...dnt really know wat is the cause but wish us luck.”
Stratford University encouraged students to go to the rally on its Facebook page . “FREE trip to DC to rally for our educational rights. Make history people!" It continued: "Free donuts & juice and free lunch. Free t-shirts and ball caps for the first 24 people! Chartered Bus!”
Miller said the students at the rally were passionate about their institutions and the mission of for-profit colleges. “These are people who really care -- they had to go out of their way, they had to get someone to take care of their children, maybe take a day off work. And that just shows you a level of commitment.”
A group of students from All State Career School in Baltimore said classes there were canceled so that they could make the trip. They said they’d heard “motivational speeches” encouraging them to go to the rally.
“I like my school, so I felt like I had to come here and represent what we stand for. You know, my job, my education, what the T-shirts say,” said Marcus Stevenson, a student at All State. “When I came to school, I was looking forward to just learning a trade, versus going to school for a bunch of other things. Just trying to learn something so I could go out there and go to work.”
Anthony Green said he saw his commercial driver’s license training program at All State as “a way to get a career started. You’re not spending four or eight years in college just to get a career started.”
While Green’s sentiments prevailed, so too did those of another student, who wouldn’t give his name. “Take away the poor man’s money for education, all that’s going to do is make more crime in poor areas.”