Attacks against for-profit schools don’t add-up

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An unintended consequence of the current recession across the United States has been a reduction in opportunities for public post-secondary education. When budgets shrink, so does the capacity of publicly run and financed schools. Students face the specter of deferring their dreams and ambitions, not knowing when flush budgets and enrollment opportunities will return.

The private sector offers an excellent educational alternative to public programs. Unfortunately, private, for-profit schools are the red-headed stepchildren of the education establishment.  Those seeking a degree from an institution like Kaplan Higher Education find themselves struggling against an archaic bias.

Private sector colleges are helping states that are struggling with serious budget shortfalls educate their residents.  For example, in California, Kaplan allows students who have been shut out of community college courses to take one course a term. In addition to this partnership with community colleges, Kaplan offers scholarships to help keep educational opportunities open in spite of state budget woes.

Even though we are helping to educate many non-traditional students, our efforts have been disparaged by some elite members of California’s higher education community. It seems they would prefer no higher education opportunities rather than attendance at private-sector schools.

This discrimination against private-sector colleges isn’t limited to California; it is happening at the federal level too.  In fact, the Obama administration is advancing a proposal that will make it harder for any American to get a student loan to attend a private sector college.

Looking down on private sector colleges is an old-fashioned view at best, rooted in the same kind of elitism and ignorance that have threatened higher education breakthroughs, like the development of community colleges and the G.I. Bill, in the past.

In the name of fairness, and because private sector schools offer the best hope for many would-be students in this economy, we need to examine and eradicate this old-fashioned bias against schools that aren’t ‘traditional’ four-year publics or non-profits.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • These for-profit institutions are fully accredited by groups recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. They offer opportunities ranging from bachelors and associates degrees to certificates and continuing education. If some people in higher education don’t think we should be accredited, then let’s have that discussion. In the meantime, our degrees should be held in equal standing with non-profit and public institutions.
  • Private sector schools offer enormous flexibility for students who want to earn a degree while working and raising a family. Education elites may not relate to or empathize with that type of situation. They should try. If they don’t know people who went to private sector schools, all they have to do is look around them. Government, business, law enforcement, health care and entrepreneurial communities are filled with private sector graduates who can speak to the value of their alma maters.
  • Finally, for prospective students who are ready to improve their earning ability through education now, an accredited two- or four-year program carries the same hope for a better future whether it is a private, public or non-profit school.  Students are looking to private sector institutions because those institutions are able to open their doors wider to new students, not pull them shut due to state budget cuts.

In my lifetime, I have seen the higher-education establishment warm toward community colleges – institutions that were all but shunned when they began. This evolution in attitude has given me hope that the attitudes of the elite toward private sector schools will evolve soon. I encourage the Obama administration and the higher education establishment to take a serious, unbiased second look at private-sector education. The hopes and dreams of many students depend on it.

Former Congressman Peter Smith is Senior Vice President of Academic Strategies and Development for Kaplan Higher Education. He was the founding president of California State University at Monterey Bay and recently wrote a book, Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent.