For-profits Battle on Many Fronts

As the U.S. Department of Education and a Senate committee continue drilling into for-profit higher education, the sector is fighting back with advertising and political messaging aimed at attracting support from policymakers and the general public.

Since the start of September, for-profit colleges and groups representing them have spent millions of dollars on print, web, television and radio ads. They’ve launched glossy promotional websites that tell students’ stories and direct visitors to write to their representatives in Congress in support of the sector. Former presidential advisers from Democratic and Republican administrations are coming out of the woodwork to affirm the importance of for-profit colleges.

"We’re 12 percent of higher education but very few public policy makers understand us and even fewer have attended our schools," said Harris N. Miller, president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, which until last week was the Career College Association. "We need to aggressively deliver the message, to move from abstract conversation to the real issues and examples, to say there is value being offered to students."

The public relations push is butting against tough political stances. The Education Department has delayed the release of some of its final regulations on “gainful employment” to early next year, but Secretary Arne Duncan vowed still to take aim at “some bad actors [that] are saddling students with debt they cannot afford in exchange for degrees and certificates they cannot use.”

The efforts come in advance of more potentially bad news coming from Capitol Hill, as Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, will on Thursday hold his third hearing since June to examine the flow of taxpayer dollars to for-profit colleges. It will include the presentation of data from 30 institutions on student outcomes and company revenues, as well as testimony from Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success; Arnold L. Mitchem, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education; and a former Kaplan Higher Education student from Iowa.

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