Stung by a barrage of recent criticism, the nation’s for-profit colleges and universities are crying foul — and going on the attack.
The target of this PR counteroffensive isn’t only Washington, where Congress and the U.S. Department of Education are considering tighter oversight of for-profit schools. Increasingly, for-profits are turning up the heat on community colleges.
Fort Lauderdale-based Keiser University might be the best example of this new phenomenon: The school has filed a lawsuit against one community college for its "destructive media campaign."
Keiser accuses Florida State College at Jacksonville administrators of conspiring to sully the for-profit school’s reputation by spreading misleading student horror stories through various media outlets.
Keiser is not the only for-profit school to start attacking community colleges. Last week, the same day Keiser filed suit, the Coalition for Educational Success — a marketing firm funded by dozens of for-profit schools — released a self-funded report that faulted community colleges for poor graduation rates and other academic failings.
Critics of the report noted its questionable methodology — the document’s own introduction acknowledges its study sample “was one of convenience and may not represent all student experiences.”
Keiser’s action has garnered national attention. The school complains that untrue allegations of malfeasance — fueled by Florida State College at Jacksonville’s media campaign — have slowed student enrollment growth.
For-profit colleges have enjoyed tremendous expansion and profits during the recession, as many unemployed workers opted to go back to school. As a privately held company, Keiser does not have to disclose its annual revenues, but earlier this year school chancellor Arthur Keiser told media outlets the company operates with a healthy 15 percent profit margin.
Reported profit margins for other for-profit schools are as high as 37 percent — double the computer maker Apple.
In addition, healthcare sites are less willing to partner as Keiser clinical training locations, and high schools are now reluctant to let Keiser recruiters on campus for student outreach, the school says.
“They have essentially harmed not only the reputation of Keiser but they’re devaluing the degrees that our students are obtaining,” said Keiser general counsel James Waldman.
Waldman declined to name specific high schools or clinical sites where Keiser is no longer welcome.
While Miami-Dade and Broward school districts haven’t banned presentations from for-profit recruiters, the colleges’ classroom visits have upset administrators who consider the students a captive audience.
For-profit colleges like Keiser, along with industry titans such as the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University, target nontraditional students with degree programs that specialize in flexible scheduling and/or online classes. But an assortment of former students, federal officials, and consumer advocates have raised concerns that the industry recruits students through deceptive practices.
For-profit schools’ high cost has also led to worries about students taking on excessive debt.
More than 90 percent of students at for-profit colleges borrow to finance their education, while community college students — who pay far lower tuition for similar programs — borrow less than 17 percent of the time, according to a recent U.S. Senate committee report.
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