Stepping Out

In the year or so since Education Secretary Arne Duncan famously described the Obama administration’s intensifying scrutiny of for-profit colleges as an effort to rein in "a few bad actors," it’s fair to say that nary an institution has come forward to identify itself as one of those. There have also been few attempts by for-profit institutions to distance themselves from peers they deem to be less worthy — partly because colleges in the sector have been impressively united in fighting the Education Department’s rules, and perhaps partly because calling oneself a "good actor" might seem a bit self-serving.

But all of a sudden, groups of career colleges are rushing to team up to align themselves as accountable, transparent and all the other things that consumer advocates and critical policy makers have been accusing the worst of them of not being. The latest to emerge is a collection of 20 regionally accredited for-profit institutions that have adopted a "pledge of public accountability," under which they will publish information about themselves (prices, curriculums, and faculty qualifications) and their students (debt levels, loan repayment, and employment outcomes), with the goal of making the institutions "more transparent to students before they enroll."

The document known as "the accord" — helpful shorthand for the document’s bulky full title, "The Accord of the Regionally Accredited Proprietary Institutions of Higher Education in the U.S." — was signed by about half of the institutions whose presidents attended a February meeting in New York called by Dario Cortes, president of Berkeley College. Cortes and other leaders of the effort described it as an attempt to bring together like-minded institutions, and while they didn’t specifically say it, they suggested that the regionally accredited colleges had different priorities and goals than do other for-profit colleges, most of which are accredited by one of several national agencies that specialize in career education.

"It represented a smaller segment of for-profit higher education that probably had a more common alignment," said Wallace E. Boston, president and chief executive officer of American Public University System. Given that the fully online institution focuses on granting degrees, rather than the career training that many nationally accredited colleges emphasize, Boston said he and other APUS officials "felt much more aligned with this particular group" than with the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, the primary group of for-profit institutions.

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