High Official in Education Department Has Warm Words for For-Profit Colleges

December 11, 2009

To many in the for-profit college industry, the Education Department has seemed like the heavy in recent weeks, particularly as it negotiates with college officials over regulations that could toughen policies on student recruiting.

But if attendees at a Career College Association investor meeting here today were expecting criticism from the department's top postsecondary-education official, the warm words they heard from Martha J. Kanter at a luncheon speech capping off the two-day event were no doubt a welcome surprise.

"You have so much to offer the country in promoting opportunity to students," Ms. Kanter told the crowd of 100-plus.

She noted that for-profit colleges, with their accommodating schedules and job-focused curricula, have succeeded in reaching the same kind of adult, working, and minority students that President Obama is hoping to encourage to attend college in greater numbers. With two-thirds of undergraduates now also holding jobs while going to college, she told the audience it was important for the country to "build on models you already know" for serving students.

"All of higher education can learn some lessons from you," Ms. Kanter said.

Formerly a president at a community college with extensive programs in distance education, Ms. Kanter also reminded the for-profit college executives about President Obama's plan to offer competitive grants of $50-million a year for 10 years for new online courses that could become national models, and she encouraged them to take part by competing for some of those grants.

Despite their giant enrollment gains in the past year, a recent spate of national news articles raising questions about recruiting tactics and concerns over the pending federal regulations have dampened stock prices for publicly traded companies and left the for-profit sector feeling a bit beleaguered.

In response to a question, Ms. Kanter reminded the colleges of the importance of sticking with "appropriate recruiting practices," but she also expressed sympathy for the view that the sector takes the blame for the overly aggressive tactics of a few bad actors.

And she responded in a similar vein when Harris Miller, the association's president, asked her if she thought the attitudes of high-school guidance counselors, and the organizations behind college-assessment testing, deter students from considering for-profit colleges.

If so, she said, "I think we have to get over it."

"Two-thirds of the students who are underrepresented in higher education enter through community colleges and your colleges," she said. "It's time people understood that nearly half of all students in the country are already in community colleges and career colleges, and the rest are in institutions that are in many ways becoming nontraditional."