At Gathering of For-Profit Colleges, Mermaids Need Not Apply

Exhibit Hall.

The scene in the exhibit hall of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities’ de-glitzed 2013 annual convention. (Photo by Michael Cooney)

Orlando, Fla. — This year, the mermaid didn’t make the guest list.

At the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities’ convention in Las Vegas last year, a vendor’s booth in the exhibit hall featured a scantily clad woman in a mermaid costume who was dangling her tail into a giant water tank. In 2011, when Apscu held its convention outside Dallas, attendees could get their photographs taken with a real steer.

The most extravagant it got in the exhibit hall for the 2013 annual convention was a golf-swing simulator. The de-glitzing of the convention hall was all part of the tone that Apscu’s president, Steve Gunderson, is trying to foster for the association.

Mr. Gunderson said the group had asked vendors to exhibit with “conduct appropriate for the higher-education sector.”

It even put extra language in its contract giving the association the right to reject displays that were “prejudicial or defamatory to the image and/or reputation of Apscu and/or its members.”

The contract also stipulated: “Exhibitors who use costumed persons or mannequins should be sure that their manner of appearance and dress are such as not to offend even the most critical.”

There was at least one costumed attendee, courtesy of a vendor called the Tribeca Marketing Group. Despite being located in Florida, it was apparently trying to play on the theme of its New York City name with a person dressed as the Statue of Liberty. Hey, at least that’s patriotic.

Although overall attendance at the convention this year was down from the previous year, both in college representatives (about 1,000 this year versus 1,600 last year) and among exhibitors (800 to 900 this year versus 1,000 last year), the roster of attendees included some notable guests. Among them was Lois C. Greisman, a top official in the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

The FTC, partly at the behest of several U.S. senators, is now “actively engaged” in monitoring marketing practices by for-profit colleges, Ms. Greisman said. She spoke at a panel, attended by 50-plus people, on the rising level of scrutiny of how third-party marketing companies hired by for-profit colleges are conducting their recruiting.

Later she toured the exhibit hall, paying particular attention to those marketing companies, as well as vendors who sell services designed to screen out marketers who fail to comply with the rules.

Any increase in compliance, she asked one of the latter?

“We’ve seen a lot of people talking about it,” he replied.

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