• October 31, 2014

At Closed-Door Summit, For-Profit Colleges Discuss How to Make the Sector More Accountable

In the midst of unprecedented public and government scrutiny of for-profit colleges, some 50 presidents and other leaders of the fast-growing sector, along with top officials from several regional accreditors and higher-education associations, are huddling here for a two-day summit this week to figure out if they can find enough common ground to hammer out a new strategy on several fronts. Among the discussions on the agenda: whether there is a "problem with the for-profit message" and how for-profit colleges could "become more transparent" to the public.

Meeting participants barred a Chronicle reporter from attending any of the sessions at the Princeton Club—including the coffee breaks.

The "Presidential Summit of Regionally Accredited Proprietary Institutions" includes officials of regionally accredited institutions that collectively enroll hundreds of thousands of students and take in billions of dollars in Pell Grant funds and federally subsidized student loans.

Attendees, many of them fierce competitors with each other, include the presidents or top officials from several of the largest colleges owned by publicly traded companies, including the University of Phoenix (the Apollo Group), Capella University (Capella Education), American InterContinental University (Career Education Corporation), Kaplan University (the Washington Post Company), Strayer University (Strayer Education), DeVry University (DeVry Inc.), Argosy University (Education Management Corporation), Heald College (Corinthian Colleges Inc.), Daniel Webster College (ITT Educational Services), and Grand Canyon University (Grand Canyon Education)—as well as smaller colleges owned by families and private-equity investors, like Bryant & Stratton College, Rasmussen College, and Herzing University, according to an attendee list from February 2 provided to The Chronicle by a participant.

Several of the colleges at the meeting are being investigated by state and federal regulators, and by their own accreditors, for abusive student-recruiting tactics; several also facelawsuits from students and former employees on similar grounds.

The heads of the higher-education accrediting bodies for the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools also were the among the 60 or so who attended, as was the head of government and public affairs for the American Council on Education, Terry W. Hartle, and the head of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, a group for college trustees, Rick Legon.

Uniting Against 'Aggressive Regulation'

Among the topics for the meeting, according to an agenda also provided to The Chronicle, is whether the colleges—all of which are regionally accredited—could find common ground to respond to what organizers termed the Department of Education's "newly aggressive regulation of higher education's policies and practices." Those regulatory efforts include the controversial "gainful employment" proposal, and new regulations that some fear could lead to greater state oversight of online education.

Conspicuously absent from the meeting were representatives from the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, the Washington, D.C.-based trade association for the for-profit-college industry, which recently sued the Department of Education over several regulations that are set to take effect this summer, including one that would give states more oversight of distance-education programs. Many of the college attendees at the meeting here in New York are members of that association, known as Apscu.

Notably, Item 9 on the meeting agenda (after Thursday's taking of a group photo, a reception, and a dinner) is the question of whether higher education in the United States and in the for-profit sector can be "strengthened" by the formation of a new organization of regionally accredited for-profit colleges.

Apscu was not invited to the meeting, but it was aware of it, said Harris N. Miller, the association's president. He said there are already several subgroups within his organization, and "if there's another one, and it helps advocate for our students, I'm all for it."

The meeting, at least two months in the making, was organized by the president of Berkeley College, Dario A. Cortes. He invited several higher-education thought leaders to organize discussions, including Robert Zemsky, who runs the Learning Alliance consultancy at the University of Pennsylvania; David Breneman, a former dean of education at the University of Virginia; and Ann Duffield, a private consultant.

Through a spokeswoman, Mr. Cortes declined to speak with The Chronicle about the meeting. While a major topic was making the sector more transparent, that transparency is for "the people invited," said the spokeswoman, Laura M. Jewell, Berkeley College's assistant vice president for institutional advancement. She said it was a "house rule" of the Princeton Club to bar the press, but an official of the club said reporters could attend events there, and have, "with special permission."

Possible New Roles for the Sector

In addition to discussions on the "integrity and credibility concerns" now being voiced about for-profit colleges as well as public and private ones, the summit is focused on ways for-profit colleges might contribute more to issues of broader concern to higher education. Among the ideas: sponsoring research on ways to better track students' experiences once they graduate, or on ways to improve the measurement of graduation rates to better reflect the many individuals who are not first-time, full-time students and are not counted now in federal statistics.

Among the attendees were several college officials and lawyers who have been heavily involved in lobbying against tougher new federal regulations, including Nancy Broff, a well-connected lawyer who works for several for-profit colleges, and Diane Auer-Jones, head of external and regulatory affairs at the Career Education Corporation (she is also a blogger for The Chronicle).

Ms. Auer Jones noted that it was not unusual for interest groups within higher education—Ivy League admissions officers, for instance—to hold private meetings.

The agenda for this week's summit includes several topics related to controversial federal issues, but according to Mr. Hartle, the conversations were more informational than political. As of midafternoon on Thursday, there had been "no sessions to talk about political strategy or politics, or messaging," he said.

Mr. Zemsky, who described himself as being in charge of the meeting, said the "next steps" would take place over the next six weeks and result in a "white paper" that the group would make public.

Comments

1. blugolds - February 11, 2011 at 06:12 am

Instead of just focusing on the closed-door meeting strategy, perhaps it is also worth noting that Private for-profit schools with national accreditations, like ACICS, (a major player in the for-profit community), also are huge benefactors from the Federal Student Loan system, and deserve to be placed under the same scrutiny and oversight, yet they were not included in this "Regionally accredited" gathering.

Realizing that the "Nationals" and the "Regionals" don't play nice, are the "Nationals" holding similar strategy meetings to craft their own "transparent" white paper. Federal monies are federal monies, regardless of accreditation oversight.

2. bearjimmy - February 11, 2011 at 09:54 am

Interestingly enough, many of those attending this meeting to represent their various institutions are lawyers, as are many of the CEOs, and board chairmans who did not attend, i.e., EDMC's McKernan, a former Governor of Maine, as well as husband of one of that state's two US Senators, Olympia Snowe.

3. trendisnotdestiny - February 11, 2011 at 10:31 am

This reminds me of the energy industry meeting at whitehouse to knockout policy aims or financial services industry players meeting at Jackson Hole to re-brand the global meltdown.

QUOTE
"Among the discussions on the agenda: whether there is a "problem with the for-profit message"

The message is that there is resistance and how are we going to use propaganda mechanisms to turn around the tide of negative press (using words like transparency and message).... You can't dress up a pig and call it excellence (unless you want to repeat lies after lies until enough people believe).....

4. gmluna10 - February 11, 2011 at 10:58 am

What's wrong with accountability? I feel that the Dept. of Education is getting villified for being responsible. Why can't for-profit institutions generate data reflecting on their schools products? After all if your in it for the profit your product needs be of some quality. The problem with "education" experts is that they don't see that their business is more about business than it is about educating. The two don't mix and at some point the profit margins come into play. In the end its about the student walking out the door, educated hopefully, after having invested monies into said programs and expecting to get a rewarding job in return. Time to lobby up boys!

5. betterschools - February 11, 2011 at 11:22 am

Notably absent in this meeting is APSCU (formerly Career College Association). The decision to dis-invite them is telling. Since the 1980's many responsible members of the for-profit community have urged APSCU to develop and enforce standards as a condition of membership and to deal firmly with schools that do not comply. (The model is firmly established by other professional associations and accrediting bodies.) Instead, APSCU has chosen to become Washington insider good-old-boys, always in a reactive mode and defining every problem as a back-office lobbying issue.

Realistically, lobbying will continue to be important and perhaps APSCU should continue to exist. However, it is time for a new professional organization to emerge out of this process. Considering they have never had effective national guidance or leadership, for-profit schools have done a decent job of evolving to meet the changing needs of the market. The current frey suggests that those days are over. An effective, data-minded, quality-minded organization needs to emerge. Had such an organization been in place between 1989 and 2009, it would have countered those portions of the feds claims that were unsupported or false with 20 years of facts. The confusion and misdirection we see today would have been averted and the industry would be focused on its most significant problems.

6. archman - February 11, 2011 at 12:11 pm

For some reason, I think this meeting generated if anything, greater networking and coordination of anti-accountability lobbying. Recent CHE articles have reported the steep monetary rise in for-profit lobbying within the last several months. I presume many of the meeting attendees were comparing notes as to which politicians are most vulnerable or influential. Blocking CHE reporters from the "summit" would facilitate such information transfers. Looser lips and all that...

7. calimorrison - February 11, 2011 at 01:26 pm

Capella University, American Intercontinental University Online and Kaplan University have all already stepped up to the transparency and accountability plate by participating in the Transparency by Design initiative and publishing data on the College Choices for Adults website (http://www.collegechoicesforadults.org). Argosy University has also made the commitment to Transparency by Design and is currently working on uploading their data for review prior to publishing on the College Choices website.

20 institutions - a mix of public non-profit, private non-profit and private for-profit institutionsm - have all made this same commitment, with 18 currently publishing data on the College Choices for Adults website.

What sets this initiative and site apart from other systems of accountability are our requirement to report program-level learning outcomes, measures of those learning outcomes and recent results of those measures AND the fact that all data goes through a third-party quality assurance review by the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) prior to being published on the web. We also have a unique focus on adult students and therefore do not focus on measures of campus life.

We welcome ANY institution which is regionally-accredited, serves adult students (aka. enrolls students aged 23 and over) and has some programs offered at a distance (encompassing online, hybrid, competentcy-based and other flexible learning formats) to join this initiative and publish their data on the College Choices for Adults website.

8. earthscienceprof - February 11, 2011 at 01:35 pm

I hear echos of the gov't guaranteed home loan situation where the entity makes bad loans, but the gov't backing guarantees that there is no penalty for that bad behavior.

9. betterschools - February 11, 2011 at 02:45 pm

@calimorrison - While I applaud this initiative, it doesn't seem to have gone far beyond the marketing level. Can you provide links to where a potentially interested student can find objective data regarding the program-level outcomes data you referred to? When I click on "Browse Curated Data" I am able to see the standard descriptors that one can find on the Department of Education website (enrollment, program descriptions, etc.) combined with some light survey data which, even as survey data, is missing the information that would be required to assess its meaning. For example, I see the means for a few questions on the National Student Engagement Survey (a weak instrument for working adults) and the means for a few Alumni survey questions. Completely missing are variance statistics, sample size and method, response rate, etc. In the measurement science community, it is regarded as intellectual dishonest to report a survey mean isolated from its context. When I click on the School's information shield by the survey question, what I see varies. Sometimes I see a response rate and administration date (in the case I looked at 26% and 2006 data). On other occasions, I see a few words explaining the question -- not much help. Even if we were provided this missing data, what they convey is minimal in relation and often highly misleading to program deliverables. I know that it took a great deal of effort to secure even this much cooperation so congratulations are in order. That said, one might infer from your post that the participating schools were sharing materially significant data. Of course, slight as it is, it is more than most institutions are sharing.

10. tuxthepenguin - February 12, 2011 at 06:09 am

@calimorrison

How about a link to the faculty and their CV's? I always ask for that, and never get it. It would be useful to know if for-profits have garbage men moonlighting as instructors.

11. goxewu - February 12, 2011 at 10:34 am

"An effective, data-minded, quality-minded organization needs to emerge. Had such an organization been in place between 1989 and 2009, it would have countered those portions of the feds claims that were unsupported or false with 20 years of facts."

Nice. In other words, if the for profits had had, for the past 20 years, an organization that could get the data to weed out the sleazeballs in for-profit higher ed, then the Feds wouldn't have been able to make accusations that there were sleazeballs in for-profit higher ed.

I make this comment outside my purview as compensated spokesperson for Murray's Discount University (formerly The Catchment Center for Government-Guaranteed Student Loans). MDU, by the way, was not invited to the summit, and it wouldn't have attended anyway. One of our mottos is, "Our business is our business."

12. betterschools - February 12, 2011 at 12:46 pm

@calimorrison - I wish you had responded. Again, I applaud any effort in the right general direction but some efforts can do more harm than good and that may be the case with respect to the "survey data" you present for each institution.

There is absolutely no measurement-scientific justification for suggesting that comparisons can be made and decisions can be rationally supported from this smattering of satisfaction percentages derived from selected responses to student and alumni survey questions when: (a) the there were no requirements for participation (extreme opportunity sample), (b) the non-responders always outnumbered the responders, (c) there are no norms or benchmarks for comparing any of the response percentages (e.g., where does 83% satisfaction fall on a percentile rank), (d) a reader is only occasionally provided partial conditions of administration and then inconsistently (e.g., "This question was administered as a pilot to 'X' class in 2007." What does 'pilot' mean? How many? How many responded?), (e) no descriptive statistics are presented, no item validity data are presented.

I can list problems from, roughly a - j, but these should be enough and I have listed them more-or-less in declining order of contribution to validity. The main thing to keep in mind is that with, say, 35% of a population responding (we don't know how many of your datasets were even populations) nothing valid can be said about that population with respect to the meaning of the item/question. This generalization becomes increasingly true as the mean of the response departs from 100%. Sorry! Good effort anyway on getting some non-profits and for-profits cooperating. we need much more of that.

13. rezonabil - February 12, 2011 at 10:48 pm

To @calimorrison asking a link to CVs:

http://www.berkeleycollege.edu/academics/school_of_liberal_arts/Contact.htm

You can find this information by clikcing on the their website, then the tab "School of Liberal Arts" and then "Faculty".

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