CCA: Responding to Allison Sherry’s and The Denver Post’s Attack on For-Profit Education

The Career College Association prepared the following response to this article published in The Denver Post:

Jobs, jobs, jobs. The mantra of the country. Career preparation. Career preparation. Career preparation. The mantra of career colleges. Yet that is virtually impossible to discern reading Allison Sherry’s article on the most rapidly growing sector of higher education, career colleges. U.S. higher education is at an inflection point, with a global economy and U-shaped recession putting unprecedented pressure on Americans to gain the kind of new skills and abilities available only in a postsecondary setting. Unfortunately, no matter how much some elitists wish it were otherwise, the bowling ball won’t fit through the straw. Demand for college far exceeds supply in our traditional system, designed for another era. States are slashing higher education funding and selective public and private liberal arts colleges remain primarily focused on those students most able to perform — and afford — private school tuitions.

The inflection point is occurring because Americans from all walks of life, not just those on easy street, need a higher education, and, with over 10 percent unemployment and a huge skills mismatch, they need it fast. Government is no longer able to meet the need with highly subsidized public education. The fork in our economic road, recognized in President Obama’s 2020 challenge to return the US to the top ranking in the world, requires new thinking and real alternatives.

For-profit education, where students, not taxpayers, pay the bulk of costs for education, is attuned to the marketplace, focused on jobs and careers, tested in the court of public opinion, and validated by the sheer weight of numbers. This year, 2.7 million students enrolled in career colleges, a number that represents double digit growth while other sectors of higher education have remained essentially flat.
The Denver Post largely misses this story of systemic and even historic change, choosing instead to accentuate the negative and sensational:

· Default rate data are misconstrued. A three-year rate recently released by the Department of Education is prospective, not actual. The Department released the information to help institutions act to manage rates. Unfortunately, that point is missed in the rush to judgment. So is the fact that over 50 percent of career college students come from economically disadvantaged circumstances. As academic studies and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, have both stated clearly, career college graduate default rates are similar to the rates of other graduates from institutions serving poor people such as community colleges and minority serving institutions.

· Tuition rates are no higher than typical tuitions charged by other private institutions and, as the article makes clear, much less than the staggering $148,704 charged by the University of Denver. Comparisons are often made to community college tuitions, but such analysis fails to mention that the taxpayer subsidizes the community college student with $7 for every dollar provided a career college student.

· Taxpayers do provide career college students with Pell Grants. Indeed, most career college students receive Pell Grants. The top dollar available with a Pell Grant, however, is capped at $5,350, so most students borrow to make up the difference. To the extent that they borrow from the federal government, the vast majority of these dollars are repaid to the federal treasury.

No fat public subsidy; rather, a responsibility to repay their loans: why do career college students prefer career college? They find an educational experience and learning environment that justifies the expense. Many have been to community college in previous academic careers. They know that the cheaper is often not better. When it comes to incentives for filling seats, critics often have the economic logic exactly backwards. Public institutions make budgets by filling enrollment quotas, not graduation metrics. Most career colleges, on the other hand, must meet specific graduation and career placement rates to remain eligible for Title IV student aid programs. As a result, they focus on the success of each student. That no doubt explains why two-year graduation rates for career college students top 60 percent, while community colleges graduate just over 26 percent of their students.

But at the end of the day, explaining why a career college is not like the University of Colorado or Colorado College is ultimately beside the point. We all agree that students deserve a quality education. America’s accredited for-profit institutions have zero tolerance for false dealing, empty promises, shoddy education or other abuses that, unfortunately, pop up in both the for-profit and not-for-profit higher education (anyone want to discuss seriously “amateur” college football, for example, in which coaches get paid millions). The exception does not prove the rule, no matter where it is found. Rather, it is the steady compilation of facts that people can see, hear and believe that constitute economic reality. In the realm of higher education, these are facts about student persistence, graduation, placement, satisfaction. For a growing number of Americans, relevance, accountability and value in higher education are the only acceptable alternative, one found only in a career education classroom.

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