For-Profit College Association's New Leader Plans a Charm Offensive

Tom Williams, CQ Roll Call, Getty Images

Since taking the helm of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities a few weeks ago, Steven Gunderson has been reaching out to both allies and critics of for-profit colleges.
March 01, 2012

In the past, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities has pressed its case about the value of for-profit colleges through campaign contributions, as well as by mocking traditional colleges as elitist and community colleges as impersonal.

Now the association's new president, a former congressman, is putting a halt to the jabs—and possibly the contributions, too.

"You will never hear me or other Apscu officials criticize any of my colleagues in higher education," said Steven Gunderson, who took the helm of the group a few weeks ago. "I'm going to change this culture. We've got to be seen as partners and allies."

Mr. Gunderson will make a debut of sorts next week when he speaks to an assembly of for-profit-education leaders gathering here for the association's annual Hill Day lobbying event. He said he intends to use his speech to tell Apscu's members that they need to get used to the public and political scrutiny that the for-profit sector has been drawing.

In an interview this week with The Chronicle, Mr. Gunderson said the industry needs to accept "three S's": that as for-profit colleges grow in size and the number of services they provide, the level of scrutiny they're subjected to will inevitably grow too.

"I used the same three S's in philanthropy," said Mr. Gunderson, who previously was president of the Council on Foundations.

Rethinking a PAC's Role

A former Republican member of Congress, Mr. Gunderson also wants the association to re-evaluate the political-action committee that plays a role in its lobbying efforts—and maybe shut it down, unless donors kick in more money to make it more effective.

"I think our PAC doesn't serve us as well as it possibly can," he said. The PAC makes the association more political than other education groups, but it "isn't big enough" to have a far-reaching impact, he said. When office-seekers come looking for donations, "we spend more time saying no than yes," said Mr. Gunderson.

According to an analysis of federal election records by the Center for Responsive Politics, the ApscuPAC donated $359,000 to candidates, political parties, and other PAC's in the two years leading up to the 2010 elections. It has given about $174,000 to date for the 2012 races.

Those sums are tiny compared with spending by the top 20 PAC's in 2010, when No. 20 on the list, for example, spent more than $8-million. But the ApscuPAC spent substantially more than the $129,000 donated by the political-action committee of the Motion Picture Association of America or the $112,000 donated by the PAC of the Recording Industry of America Association, two groups that have achieved political wins on educational issues related to copyright protection.

For the 2012 cycle, Apscu's PAC ranks No. 588 out of 3,980 PAC's in total spending, and No. 656 in contributions to candidates out of 2,762 PAC's that have made such donations.

With hundreds of for-profit college leaders scheduled to converge here next week, Mr. Gunderson said he's advising Apscu's membership to "either get serious about your PAC or get rid of it." Actions related to Apscu's political-action committee would have no effect on individual PAC's that many of the college companies that Apscu represents may operate.

He said the association would encourage its members to get involved in the fall elections by hosting bipartisan candidate forums that he hopes will help build political support for the colleges from members of all parties.

Change of Tone

In his first weeks on the job, Mr. Gunderson has been deliberate in his outreach, not only making contact with political allies and leaders of other associations but also extending his charm offensive to some of the sector's biggest critics. He said he has written to U.S. Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Richard Durbin of Illinois, two Democrats who have held hearings highlighting recruiting abuses by for-profit colleges. And he has made entreaties to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and an official at the White House. Both the Education Department and the White House have backed tougher regulations for the for-profit sector.

Mr. Gunderson said the sector has been "reactive and defensive" in the past, and needs to become more "proactive and positive" in its dealings with the executive branch as well as with Congress. To that end, he has been working on some ideas for the 2013 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the main law governing federal student aid.

In the past, Apscu officials have been publicly critical of public and nonprofit colleges. In August, for instance, a statement on the group's Web site responded to a news report about student debt by saying that students who chose lower-cost community colleges would be "treated like a number rather than a person."

Mr. Gunderson said he's serious about changing the organization's tone. He noted, for example, that Apscu had not criticized any of President Obama's recent proposals for new job-training programs at community colleges.

But the Coalition for Educational Success, another for-profit college association that shares board members with Apscu, issued a statement arguing that for-profit colleges would be better bargains for taxpayers than community colleges as homes for job-training programs.

Mr. Gunderson said there was no good-cop, bad-cop strategy at work. "I can only control what we do," he said. He added the if for-profit and community colleges "see each other as competitors, everybody loses."

With the for-profit college industry facing continued political and legal pressures on many fronts, filling the Apscu presidency—which became vacant following the abrupt resignation of Harris N. Miller in June—wasn't easy. Headhunters who put out feelers reportedly found that many candidates weren't willing to take on the job.

Mr. Gunderson, however, said it didn't give him pause. The Apscu job was the only association post he sought, he said. "I knew exactly what I was coming into."

Kelly Field contributed to this article.