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

February 10, 2011

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.