NEW ORLEANS — A pair of presenters here at the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges encouraged their colleagues to be more “aggressive” in their approaches to for-profit institutions. Though admitting that for-profit institutions outspend and out-lobby them at the national level, they suggested that it is more advantageous for community colleges to defend their “brand” at the local and state levels, where they can more directly benefit from workforce development funding.
David Baime, AACC senior vice president of government relations and research, said his association has long held that it does not respond to criticisms of community colleges that it considers “unfounded.” Instead, he said, its philosophy has been to simply “positively advance” its agenda. Still, in the past year or so, as Congress has investigated the for-profit sector, he said AACC has been “forced, to some degree, to respond to some attacks on community colleges,” primarily from advocates of for-profit education.
As locally owned institutions have been replaced by investor-owned national chains, Baime continued, for-profits are “highly visible to federal policymakers.” He also noted that the “potential of these institutions to constrain the growth and development of community colleges is only beginning.”
James Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College, in Michigan, explained how his institution has responded to the growth of for-profit education, as student aid and federal workforce training dollars have increased.
For instance, Jacobs said, federal loans and grants to for-profit institutions in Michigan are “significantly greater” than those awarded to community colleges, primarily as the for-profits expand to respond to the state’s No Worker Left Behind program and other workforce initiatives.
Jacobs said that his college lobbied its local workforce investment board, which certifies institutions at which those awarded workforce investment funds can spend their training money, and encouraged it to direct more students to community colleges over for-profit entities. Since May 2009, he noted, enrollment in community colleges has outpaced that at for-profit institutions in his area. He said that his local workforce investment board responded to his college’s argument that its programs were more cost-effective and more likely to produce workers with meaningful credentials.
“The private sector siphons away federal dollars from both student aid and workforce programs, making them less efficient and effective,” Jacobs said. “On the state level, this undermines the capacity of community colleges to offer technical training. This needs to be raised as a public policy issue in terms of effective use of taxpayer dollars.”
Jacobs argued that it is easier to deal with for-profit institutions at the state and local levels because the “specific ties to resources” — such as workforce training grants — “can be made more clearly.”
It is a bit more complicated and nuanced at the federal level. Baime said one of the main federal policy issues for community colleges right now is to avoid becoming “collateral damage” of efforts to regulate for-profit institutions — such as the recent Education Department rules on state authorization and defining the credit hour. He argued that community colleges need to ensure that different “sectors receive different treatment.”
Baime, however, was hesitant to say that his and Jacobs’s session suggested a different, more aggressive direction for AACC’s lobbying. Instead, he argued that community college leaders simply needed to be more cognizant of, and to help others recognize, “the fundamental differences between sectors.”
Some for-profit advocates in the audience at the meeting, of which there were a handful, took issue with what they perceived as a session that lumped all for-profit institutions together.
“I encourage you to look at individual institutions that occupy the for-profit space and evaluate them that way,” said Sue Ream, a vice president with the Career Education Corporation, which runs numerous for-profit institutions such as the Le Cordon Bleu cooking schools. “There are always bad apples in every bucket. While I can't speak to them and I won't profess to be perfect ourselves, I encourage each one of you to take a look at us individually.”