Raining on the Parade

As community colleges take center stage today at a White House summit, a group representing for-profit colleges is taking aim at community colleges.

In a report released Monday, a marketing firm working for the Coalition for Educational Success, an advocacy group for several privately held for-profit companies, argues that community colleges engage in "unsavory recruitment practices" and offer students "poorer-than-expected academic quality, course availability, class scheduling, job placement and personal attention."

The report crystallizes arguments from the for-profit sector that community colleges — perceived as the Obama administration’s preferred set of institutions to offer work force training — are ill-equipped to serve the students they already enroll and would struggle in taking on larger enrollments. The document’s release just ahead of today’s summit is intended to tarnish the event’s luster and the praise for community colleges that will come from President Obama and others, and it emerges amid the for-profit sector’s aggressive lobbying, advertising and rallying against the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed regulations on "gainful employment" and a Senate panel’s investigation of the sector.

“Community colleges play a vital role in the American economy,” said Jean Norris, managing partner of Norton|Norris, the firm that produced the report. “However, they are not the only choice. Community colleges have some systemic issues that really need to be addressed and the singular focus on the problems of the career colleges is a waste of time and money and forgets the institutions that serve a much larger number of students.”

For one part of the report, Norton|Norris sent “secret shoppers” to meet with admissions officers at 15 community colleges and found that none would provide graduation rates, even when asked. In the report, these findings are likened to those identified by the Government Accountability Office on undercover visits to for-profit colleges, where investigators were told they didn’t have to repay loans and encouraged to lie on financial aid forms. The firm also surveyed current for-profit college students who had been enrolled at community colleges, asking them to compare their satisfaction levels at the two different kinds of institutions. In all but one category — price — the for-profit colleges came out on top.

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