Harris Miller: A Higher Standard for Career Colleges

Some people can’t take yes for an answer. Private-sector colleges and universities are expanding access to higher education, providing a pathway to skills and training for over 2.7 million students every year. Many of these are older working adults returning to school to rejuvenate careers and improve job prospects. Demand for this kind of purposeful, practical education is at an all-time high. So enrollment in one of our colleges or universities practically should promote itself.

Instead, as a Government Accountability Office report released this week based on GAO personnel posing as potential students at 15 schools reveals, a small number of school admissions and financial aid personnel felt they had to paint outside the lines.

Some of the incidents were egregious. They were certainly unethical. Others appear to be the result of sloppiness or stupidity. However these school personnel happened to err individually, collectively they cast doubts about the value proposition of our schools.

The Career College Association has zero tolerance for the practices reported by the GAO’s mystery shoppers.

With more than 200,000 employees in our schools dealing with millions of potential applicants and a myriad of rules, a few honest mistakes will be made. But we must do better than the GAO report indicates. Our approach is to put the student first, whether in admissions, financial aid, classroom instruction, support services, or career placement. Our expectation is that every CCA member institution and institution employee will follow our lead.

We are chagrined by what the government investigators uncovered, and frustrated by the enormous amount of good our schools perform that such episodes overshadow. Most of all, we are pained by the cloud that such unfortunate behavior casts over the honest accomplishments and incredible striving of our hardworking students, and the vast majority of the faculty and administrators at our schools.

So today we are announcing a plan to fix the problem. Elements of our strategy include:

  • Strengthening the CCA Code of Conduct to ensure it addresses the major compliance problems identified by GAO and others who have objectively studied the sector;
  • Expanding substantially CCA’s existing compliance training program; 
  • Creating a summit to bring together stakeholders from government, academia, accreditation agencies, student advocates and other areas to review and provide input on compliance best practices; 
  • Developing a recommended "zero tolerance" company standard for misbehaving employees, regardless of position or assignment; 
  • Developing an ongoing, sector-wide mystery shopping program to assess the state of practice in recruitment, admissions, financial advising and other critical compliance areas; 
  • Encouraging existing oversight by federal and state governments and accrediting bodies to be increased to ensure that the myriad existing laws, regulations and accreditor requirements are being observed.

If these steps aren’t sufficient, we will take more. CCA member schools already have compliance programs in place, but many will need to be strengthened and upgraded. The rules exist to protect students and the taxpayers who help pay for their education.

Compliance is a journey, not a destination, and without continued emphasis on it, errors will become more prevalent. I have no doubt that recruitment, admissions and financial aid problems occur in other walks of academic life.

But we have to respond to a higher set of ethical standards and practices. Not because we want to prove ourselves better or more worthy than traditional colleges and universities, but because circumstances like the GAO report findings require us to prove ourselves, period.

In a global economy, America needs all hands on deck. Those "hands" must be able to perform the value-added tasks of a newly competitive age. President Barack Obama said as much when he challenged the nation to regain its world leadership in the percentage of adults with college credentials. And the American people sensed as much when two-thirds told us in a survey we commissioned last year that for the U.S. to be competitive in the global marketplace, every American needs at least one year of college education.

Private-sector colleges and universities have a tremendous role to play in this regard. There is, however, no place in this exciting future for those who do not play by the rules.

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