As Editor of Career College Central, Kevin Kuzma has a lot on his mind about this heavily scrutinized for-profit education sector. From the latest GAO report to Gainful Employment, Kuzma clearly knows what he’s talking about and offers a refreshing take on for-profit colleges.
1. Kevin- do you mind giving a little background on yourself?
I was the first in my family to graduate from college. I went to a small private school in Parkville, Mo., called Park College (now Park University.) The college was close to downtown Kansas City, which meant there were hundreds of commuter students, and because of its arrangement there were a lot of non-traditional and military students. The on-campus population was only about 250-300 students, so there were many opportunities to get involved in campus activities. I volunteered for a sports writer spot on the campus newspaper and worked my way up to the editor position. Pretty much from day one, I was embroiled in the most important issues on campus and sometimes made the news myself with my editorial columns that occasionally took shots at the college president for running the school like a business. Isn’t that ironic? Park was one of the first traditional colleges to push online programs and they had campuses at dozens of military bases around the country. They followed that model and made some other critical business decisions in order to keep the main campus alive, and it worked brilliantly.
When I graduated, I wanted to keep writing in any capacity I could. I worked for a weekly newspaper chain in Kansas City for three years, then made the leap to public relations and corporate communications because the salary potential wasn’t there in the newspaper business and I was starting a family. I found my way to Career College Central after accepting a public relations position with PlattForm Advertising. We started the magazine about four years ago to provide the sector a voice. You really have to credit the vision of our publisher, Michael Platt. He wanted something like our publication exactly for moments like we’ve seen over the last year – something the industry could rally around. It’s an exciting job, but it’s also fun.
2. Our industry has gone under a lot of scrutiny lately because of the GAO report, what did you think about that?
My initial reaction was, “So what?” And those continue to be my feelings about the GAO’s report, really. I mean, they found 15 schools where there was evidence of misleading or “inappropriate” recruitment tactics. I can find you 15 schools where there wouldn’t be any issues. So where does that leave us? If you watched the Senate hearings where the secret shopper footage was unveiled, it was a bit too much of a showcase in my opinion. The investigators were going for the big “Aha!” moment. There was something production-like about the presentation. The DOE has also never clarified how many visits they had to make to upturn the instances they found. I think it’s clear some of the larger schools need to revamp their recruiting practices, which has already begun. But aside from that, I think trying to regulate the entire sector and blow up who knows how many programs is the wrong way to go.
3. Everyone is talking about DOE’s ruling “Gainful employment”…what do you think of it? Also what do you think will be ultimate outcome?
Gainful employment doesn’t accomplish the goals that the DOE hopes to fulfill. The department obviously started out with good intentions – in sort of a consumer protection vein – but that has since devolved. The rule overreaches its bounds. It turns educators’ attention to issues that occur outside of their realm of control (namely salary). The rule would limit access to higher education among minority groups. Students’ choice of programs would be diminished. And maybe worst of all, it continues a double standard in the higher education community by singling out “for-profit” schools with rules that wouldn’t be imposed on traditional colleges and universities. I really don’t see any upside to it. Right now, many for-profit industry leaders will tell you they expect the rule to pass as-is. I tend to agree with that sentiment. The DOE is going to significant effort to make it appear as though they are listening to feedback from for-profit schools. They received 90,000 letters during the NPRM open comment period (the majority of the letters decrying the rule) and hosted public hearings. But from what I’ve seen, they don’t consider our feedback legitimate. What’s happening in the for-profit education world is representative of what’s happening in American politics: you are either with someone on an issue, or against them. The DOE looks down on our industry. I’m afraid the rule is going to pass as it was proposed and the Obama administration is going to get its wish of directing students away from what it fears are solely profit-motivated schools and into community colleges.
4. Where do you think the For-Profit school industry has gone wrong, that they are facing these rulings, where the public sector doesn’t have to?
We were too successful. We embraced online learning long before most traditional colleges and universities. We developed programs that were flexible to the way people live their lives. With the economy taking a downturn, more people wanted direct paths to careers, not a general education. No matter what your perception of education is, you can’t disagree with the enrollments at for-profit schools. When our schools started drawing substantial Title IV money … and you saw schools like Harvard actually letting some staff members go … I think that turned the attention to our industry. Rather than looking at what our sector does well and trying to implement some of those components, the educators from the traditional realm have just assumed we’re cheating. Well, we’re not cheating. We’re more efficient in introducing new programs, and we’re more innovative.
5. Can you share some insight from your prospective that might surprise people to find out about the For-Profit school industry?
Probably the best insight I can offer is about the students themselves. I think there’s a great deal of misunderstanding about who they are, what they’re like, and what their motivations are. They aren’t out to rule the world or set the world on fire … I don’t think they have the same indestructible feeling that some college graduates have when they enter the workforce. Many of these people are looking for something better for themselves and their families than a lifetime in food service or tending bar. They have some of the most remarkable stories I’ve ever heard. In fact, one of my biggest disappointments with the media and their coverage of our industry are all the stories they could be sharing about the accomplishments of our students with their readers. I’ve interviewed students who have inspired me. I’ve been inside the schools and I’ve seen for myself how rigorous the programs can be. Many of these students have some sort of obstacle they are trying to overcome – a difficult upbringing, for example, or maybe they started families sooner than they expected. The commitments they have to make just to get an education are extraordinary. In most cases, they don’t have any fallbacks, either. They don’t have parents who can bail them out. It’s all on them. That’s why you see the default and dropout rates.
6. I read your blog often and follow you on twitter and noticed that you have been in Washington lately attending the hearing. Can you give us a little more insight into that experience?
Well, thank you for following along. We appreciate it. There’s a tremendous amount of work that goes into our blogging and social media efforts and it involves a team of people to make it happen. I thought the hearings were insightful, though I think you’ll find many of the people in attendance thought they were lackluster … or a complete waste of time. Nearly everyone who spoke condemned the gainful employment rule. What was interesting to me was all the various perspectives about the rule’s potential damning impacts. Administrators said they wouldn’t be able to keep track of some of the new data. Civil rights groups condemned the potential lack of access to higher education among minority students. There was a restaurant association in Nevada that was afraid it would lose its pipeline of culinary arts grads. Throughout the hearings, the DOE panel didn’t ask any clarifying questions or for more information. They just ushered the speakers through, no matter how vehement the presentation was. I’ve been told this is the way the hearings are supposed to work, but it sent a bad impression to the audience. People are skeptical about whether or not the DOE already has its mind made up about gainful employment. The hearings didn’t dispel that impression
7. Last question, what do you think is the number one issue that is missing from the overall conversation about these rulings from both sides of the aisle?
Again, I’d say fairness or a lack of understanding. This situation could be better resolved if the DOE or administrators from the traditional sector of higher education would take a moment to try to understand our students and what makes our sector successful. I don’t feel much is missing from our side of the aisle. All the executives I’ve talked to would be happy to comply with the DOE, the traditional sector or whoever. The door has been slammed shut on them, though. Their success apparently hasn’t made the industry more reputable. In fact, it’s done the opposite. Go figure.