Blog: The Same Drill for the Same Confusion

My college days were the last place I expected to find myself after the recent negotiated rulemaking discussions about removing the safe harbors for incentive compensation.

If you were to show me a sentence like that last one when I was a college senior, I would have gone back to my off-campus apartment, microwaved some day-old chicken wings and sulked at how my aspirations to be a journalist apparently turned out. The industry terminology would have thrown me. I might have thought, after some traumatic failure in which a source in one of my feature articles in The New York Times had managed to dupe me, I’d decided to follow a career in finance or insurance, maybe, with some bent involving education.

Back in the mid-1990s, I was a student walking the gorgeous Park College campus in Parkville, Mo., on my way to courses in incredible limestone buildings made from rocks taken from quarries in the surrounding river bluffs. I usually like to write with as much description as possible – to infuse the sentences with some sort of feeling that takes the reader along to places and lets them see through my eyes, for a bit. To this day, I’ve never written one paragraph about Parkville that can do it justice. I consider this my greatest failing as a writer, to not be able to capture the beauty of the place where I was educated and fell in love with the world.

On Saturday afternoons, with nothing better to do, I’d sometimes cover sporting events for the campus newspaper, The Stylus, in the ramshackle gymnasium that doubled for basketball and volleyball games – and tripled for girls’ softball batting practice. The north wall was less than a foot beyond the out of bounds line, so it wasn’t uncommon to see players run up the base of the wall after knocking a ball back into play. I came to learn the other teams in our small conference after a few games, and I’d grown familiar with the reputation for one, Graceland College in Lamoni, Iowa, from athletic programs that were competitive across the board, and from a grizzled old photographer who worked on the newspaper staff with me who’d grown up either in or near Lamoni.

Some colleges carry with them distant religious affiliations. Similar to Park, Graceland was founded by a religious group, the Community of Christ church. As a student, you don’t feel those ramifications much (if at all) these days. The principles are there, but they are carried out (in some instances) by decidedly non-religious academics who believe in principles because a few of them make sense in the realm of social responsibility, morality, and so on, not necessarily because they were handed down from on high.

In reading Inside Higher Education’s report yesterday, “Incentive Comp Still a Problem,” I was surprised to read the following: “In 1999, before the safe harbors were adopted, Graceland College in Lamoni, Iowa, was found to have paid a third-party contractor commissions ranging from 40 to 60 percent of students’ tuitions for securing enrollments and retaining students. In all, payments totaled close to $6 million.”

Glorious Graceland, I didn’t realize, at one point had been involved in some recruiting and reimbursement practices so egregious that they might have helped some parameters be put into place. The issues that the safe harbors sought to solve did not only involve career training-oriented institutions, but higher education institutions of all sorts.

So why should career colleges be made to feel the brunt of the accusations? Because that’s the way it’s always been, I suppose, and to divert the attention from traditional colleges and universities that also manage to blur the same line.

For so many in career education, the focus is on the numbers. Admissions reps and administrators are looking at leads, placements, retention rates, graduation rates, financial aid funds, salaries, accreditation standards, and so on. There is so much regulation – so much hoop jumping – that any institution that violates rules for incentive compensation either had it coming … or took their eye off the ball slightly and pulled one foul.

At the university level, I would guess the same reasoning might be true. To admit that, though, traditional colleges and universities would have to be grouped in with for-profit schools, which they are clearly not willing to do. Sides are still being taken, lines are still being drawn. Career college professionals, the usual approach will work here.

By now, you know how it works. Every six months — maybe even more frequently — the traditional news media accuses "for-profit" schools of committing some travesty in which all institutions are indicted, we respond in droves with intelligent counterpoints, and all goes silent until it happens again. Each time, someone new seems to take the lead in responding and it’s always encouraging for me to see people come together.

As a journalist myself, it’s been discouraging to see how the mainstream media talks down about our schools and ignores our students’ accomplishments. But we’ve benefited from it, too, in being the first to cover some amazing graduates and break news pieces from perspectives our competitors never consider.

The journalistic standards that were instilled in me at Park University — a traditional institution of higher learning — have been a blessing. I can admit that. Why not? It seems to me where you receive your education is not as important as what you learn … and the grace with which you put it to use.

By Kevin Kuzma, Editor, Career College Central

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