By Kevin Kuzma, Online Editor
The story is a good one and, to this point, it's largely gone untold.
The main characters are buried by tremendous odds, caused either by circumstance, unfortunate decision making, or both. Wanting nothing more than to make decent lives for themselves, they decide to find a way out from waiting tables, tending bar, and sweeping up. But first they have to make their way through a dark tunnel of personal struggle and, sometimes, fear. At the risk of spoiling the ending, somehow, they find the strength to make something of a life that sometimes not even their families believe in.
This story line, of course, applies to most the students attending the programs at your schools. I know from having visited with a number of career college students. The majority have overcome enormous obstacles — physical and verbal abuse, abandonment, substance issues, tragedy, single parenthood, dead-end careers, and more — to become college graduates. And yet, most schools do not realize what a treasure trove their stories truly are.
Instead, it’s been the traditional media shaping the perception of career colleges over the years with little intervention on the sector’s part. Journalists use the term “for-profit” to label schools as sheer profit motivated, though educators throughout the sector would prefer different terminology and despite the fact that all institutions of higher learning must turn a profit or fold. The last 18 months, though, have been extraordinary for the level of vehemence and consistency. Hit after hit, the sector has taken it on the chin.
The media has taken its cues from politicians who are admittedly unknowledgeable about the mission of career colleges, how they operate or their impact on the American labor force. For the longest time, it seemed the overly negative coverage was making little impact on current and potential students, but we saw this week that the impact has been substantial.
Harris Interactive published the results of its poll of 2,183 adults surveyed online between July 11 and 18, 2011. According to The Harris Poll, more than half of Americans (57%) agree that for-profit colleges/universities do not care how many of their students graduate, only how many enroll and pay tuition. But, at the same time, a similar number (55%) agree that for-profit colleges/universities serve an important need.
A press release posted by the organization on PR Newswire noted that there are a “large number of U.S. adults who say they are not sure about (career) schools which means there is still a learning curve these colleges and universities have to climb. And, because of this sense of the unknown, what Americans may learn about the schools is what they see in the media regarding the federal government's scrutiny of them. The schools need to be proactive in pushing the message of the important need they fulfill to help counter this.”
While it’s been talked about and considered many times over the years, to my knowledge, there has never been an organized movement among the career college sector to end the negative publicity that takes a toll on these institutions or an attempt to educate the sources behind it. Instead, career colleges have kept low profiles, quietly refuting the charges against them or writing futile letters to the editor after devastating remarks have already appeared in prominent news publications.
With the onslaught of negative news involving the “gainful employment” rule, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU) has put up a tremendous lobbying effort, organized student rallies, and filed lawsuits that have attracted headlines. But an overarching strategy has not materialized.
As a result of the current administration’s push together with the Department of Education, almost all news about career colleges today is negative. Given such a pervasively toxic environment nationally and in several states throughout the country, it seems that only a strategic public relations campaign can shed a different light on career-training providers.
Students are a commodity that can tell firsthand about the experience inside a career college classroom and, perhaps more importantly, afterward, as a sustainably employed career person in their respective field. Their stories alone could the centerpiece to a straightforward PR campaign that explains what role career colleges play in changing lives and shaping America.
But is it too late for a PR effort to do any good? I posted a discussion item on the Career College Central LinkedIn page asking whether or not the sector should launch a national PR campaign, and there is a sentiment that a sector-wide PR strategy should have been in motion long before the current rash of negative publicity.
Was there a better time to start the PR push, say, five years ago when career colleges and online schools were at the pinnacle of success? Then, it might have seemed unnecessary to some and a waste of resources. In launching a concerted PR campaign now, would the effort seem reactionary and insincere in its actions?
Probably. But the sector is losing ground everyday as it is. If not now, then when? The key involves the messaging. There is still a genuine story to be told – and it shouldn’t come from executives or even educators. Successful students have to line up and shout the story as loud as they can. Until then, it’s the Obamas, Harkins, Duncans who will tell the story directly in the ear of reporters who’ve never stepped inside your schools. Some believe the message needs to be orchestrated by the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities. Others will tell you it’s the schools themselves that should be helping students tell these stories and that APSCU should represent the sector on Capitol Hill.
I see it this way: There’s a storybook sitting on a table and inside it is a tale that’s stunning for its sheer capability to change perspectives. Someone needs to pick it up and hand it to the unlikeliest of readers.