For-profits offer flexibility — at a price

For-profit colleges charge $35,000 for an associate degree, on average, more than four times the cost at the average community college, writes Ashlee Kieler in the Consumerist. Why does anyone go to a for-profit college? Flexibility and convenience draw many students, she writes. And for-profit colleges spend heavily on marketing.

In 2000, for-profit colleges enrolled 3 percent of postsecondary students. By 2009, that had soared to 9 percent, reports College Board. Community colleges’ share dropped from 43 percent to 40 percent.

For-profit college students see a more convenient and flexible learning experience, according to a report from Stanford’s National Center For Postsecondary Improvement. “Freed from the traditional academic schedules and even from many of the fixed costs of infrastructure and expensive facilities, the [school] is able to offer courses at more convenient times and in more convenient locations.”

For-profit colleges were leaders in offering online and evening courses to students with jobs and family responsibilities.

For-profit colleges also tend to have names that sound more like a traditional university — some even have “university” in their names — which has a certain aspirational appeal to it. The phrase, “I went to Heald College” may have a better ring to it than “I went to Bucks County Community College,” even if the student got the same or better education at the school with the clunkier name.

For-profit colleges rarely make students take remedial courses before taking courses than count for a credential. Instead, basic skills instruction is integrated into for-credit courses. That’s a policy some community colleges are trying.

Like community colleges, the for-profit sector enrolls many students who are 25 to 40 years old. However, for-profit college students are much more likely to be living in poverty, reports the  Institute for Higher Education Policy. They use federal grants and loans to pay for college.


“Only 35 percent of community college students take out loans to pay for school,” says Suzanne Martindale, staff attorney at Consumers Union. By contrast, “86 percent of for-profit college students take out loans.”

However, Kieler doesn’t mention another reason students may choose a for-profit college. On average, two-year for-profit colleges, which focus on job training, have much higher completion rates than community colleges, which have academic and job training missions. For-profit vocational programs are very structured. Some community colleges are adding structured pathways to improve completion rates.

CCs need new financing models

Community colleges must diversify their funding sources, writes Rufus Glasper, chancellor of Maricopa Community Colleges in Arizona. Public funding is unlikely to rebound, he writes. “We should consider privatization where appropriate, but far from the core missions of access and excellence in teaching and learning.”

More of the costs of education should be “shared with local businesses and industries that depend on the students we train,” Glasper writes.

Privatization suggests more aggressive marketing. Who among us hasn’t asked, or been asked, why we don’t do a better job of telling our astounding stories, from the lives we change to the hope we instill in students and community members?

Leveraging public-private resources, such as joint community libraries, wellness centers and health clinics, allows for community use and provides new and experiential opportunities for our students.

Community college leaders must increase their fundraising and development efforts to bring in new revenue, Glasper concludes.

What’s in a name?

Henry Ford Community College is rebranding itself as Henry Ford College. The 75-year-old college in Dearborn, Michigan hopes to start offering a four-year degree in culinary arts.

Almost 40 colleges have dropped “community” from their names in the past decade,reports the Wall Street Journal.

“We’re seeing more and more community colleges offering bachelor’s degrees, which is the associated phenomenon,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow with the left-leaning Century Foundation. “Shedding the word ‘community’ is an important step toward attracting a broader cross-section of students.”

Henry Ford College has launched a marketing campaign with a new vision statement—”First Choice. Best Choice.”

. . . the school faces big challenges. Its graduation rate within three years for first-time, full-time students typically hovers in the single digits, compared with around 20% nationally for public two-year institutions. A school spokesman said Henry Ford is working to improve its graduation rate as well as its transfer rate—the rate at which students jump over to four-year institutions, which was 39% in 2012, according to federal data.

This fall, three community colleges in Seattle will drop “community” from their names.

In Florida, where community colleges now offer workforce-related bachelor’s degrees, most have switched to “college” or “state college.”

Learn from the California Raisins

Community colleges need to start marketing themselves, writes Matt Reed. He remembers when the California Raisins’ version of  “I heard it through the grapevine” was a huge hit. A consortium of farmers paid for a series of commercials selling their product.

Each college is (rightly) concerned with its own local visibility and brand awareness.  But there’s a common interest across the sector in raising public awareness of the transfer option as a way around increasing student loan burdens.  No individual raisin farmer could afford to advertise the entire industry, but the industry as a whole could.

In other words, in addition to the message that “your local community college is a good school,” we need to send the message as a sector that community colleges can be good launch pads for higher degrees.

Community colleges need to expand the discussion beyond just remediation and workforce development, Reed argues. Colleges need to challenge the fallacy that a 20 percent graduation rate means that all students have a 20 percent chance of success. In reality, full-time students, women and academically prepared students have higher rates of success.

“It’s time to send a different message through the grapevine,” Reed concludes.

Compare college costs: $3,300 vs. $32,000

Community colleges are losing students to high-cost for-profit competitors. Now Ozarks Technical Community College in Missouri is fighting back with an ad campaign that compares its tuition to its competitors, reports Inside Higher Ed.

A TV commercial the college unveiled last week compares the $3,300 annual cost of tuition, fees, books and supplies at Ozarks to $32,000 at Bryan College, a small Christian for-profit, $18,000 at ITT Tech and roughly $14,000 at Everest College and Vatterott College.

“When looking at the costs, there is no comparison,” a voiceover says during the commercial. “The numbers speak for themselves.”

With rapidly growing enrollment, Ozarks is struggling to meet demand and has turned away allied health and technical students, Inside Higher Ed reports.  While chancellor Hal Higdon says his college isn’t losing enrollment to the for-profits, he wants students to be “smart consumers.”

For-profit dropouts who enroll at Ozarks bring along their debts for federal reporting purposes, which raises the colleges loan default rates.

While community colleges have been reluctant to invest in marketing, Southwestern Illinois College promotes “SWIC-onomics” in print ads touting its low tuition.

Harkin report hits for-profits

After a series of congressional hearings lambasting for-profit higher education, Sen. Tom Harkin has released a 249-page report hitting high dropout rates and spending on marketing, recruiting and distributing profits to shareholders.

The industry’s trade group, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, charged the report “twists the facts to fit a narrative, and misstates the graduation rate at two-year for-profit colleges.

In a dissent, Republican staff members also questioned the report’s accuracy and fairness.

The report’s call for  tighter regulation is unlikely to get far in an election year, predicts Inside Higher Ed.

The report calls for tighter rules governing for-profits in several areas. Those include more data collection on student performance by the U.S. Department of Education, the tying of federal aid to minimum student outcomes, lowering of the 90/10 threshold to 85 percent and the creation of an online student complaint clearinghouse.

In the absence of “significant reforms,” the report said the “sector will continue to turn out hundreds of thousands of students with debt but no degree.”

Better data on student performance surely is a good thing, but tying federal aid to student outcomes poses a threat to all open-access colleges and universities. Success rates are lower at community colleges than at two-year for-profit colleges. Historically black colleges and universities also would be threatened by linking aid to outcomes.

The report includes profiles of 30 for-profit companies detailing charges of “student recruiting, substandard academic offerings, high tuition and executive compensation, low student retention rates and the issuance of credentials of questionable value.” The report compares tuition at for-profit colleges to community colleges, state universities and private non-profit alternatives in the area. Not surprisingly, taxpayer-subsidized institutions charge less tuition than for-profit colleges.

Harkin’s tone during the investigation has been fiercely critical, so the inclusion of a few conciliatory notes in the report may be a surprise to some observers. It notes that the sector will continue to play an important role in higher education, in part because nonprofit colleges lack the capacity to serve growing demand

For-profits should be well-equipped to serve nontraditional students, at least “in theory,” the report said. “They offer the convenience of nearby campus and online locations, a structured approach to coursework and the flexibility to stop and start classes quickly and easily. These innovations have made attending college a viable option for many working adults, and have proven successful for hundreds of thousands of people who might not otherwise have obtained degrees.”

For-profit college executives’ pay is linked to profits, not to student success, complains Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Maryland, who released  preliminary findings of his inquiry into 13 publicly traded higher-education companies last week.

College markets online degree to distant students

Cuyahoga Community College is marketing an online degree outside Ohio, reports the Cleveland Plain Dealer. To promote its associate degree in captioning and court reporting, Tri-C is sending postcards, buying radio ads and running ads on web sites in Nashville and Charlotte.

The goal is to bring in revenue that not only covers the cost of advertising but helps support the college’s operations in Cuyahoga County, said Alan Moran, vice president of marketing and communications.

“We are not deviating from our mission for our current students,” he said. “The revenue will build more buildings, buy more equipment and pay for more financial aid.”

Emulating for-profit colleges, which advertise their online programs nationwide, the American Association of Community Colleges has created to market online community college courses to students across the country.


CCs can learn from for-profit colleges

Community colleges can learn from for-profit schools, writes Felipe Payan, a computer instructor at Los Angeles Southwest Community College, in Community College Week.

For-profit colleges market themselves aggressively to Hispanic and African-American students, Payan writes. But students also choose for-profits because of better customer service and accelerated educational programs that allow students to graduate in two years or less.

Many for-profits let students earn credits for work experience, writes Payan, who once taught in the for-profit sector.  Students are walked through registration and placed in the right classes, with no long lines or stress. “The new for-profit students are ready for learning on the first day of class.”

Payan has low-cost suggestions:

Every community college website should have a calculator or table comparing the cost of for-profit education versus the savings realized by attending a community college.

Refresh community college websites with stories of students who have successfully transferred and or secured full-time employment. Promote your shining stars and build up brand to counter the for-profits marketing machine.

Expand social media presence with YouTube, Facebook and Twitter with students talking up their positive experience at your college. Designate students who can be digital cheerleaders for your college. Faculty or counselors can use social media to share transfer information or employment/intern opportunities.

Bring in alumni and put them on video touting the benefits of attending your community college. Again, fresh content is essential.

Launch multilingual campaigns in Spanish, Mandarin, Tagalog and other languages.

To increase revenues, community colleges should charge extra for priority registration, priority parking and other premium services, he adds. Students will pay more for an accelerated path to a certificate or degree.

Payan also suggests offering courses to international students who will pay for the privilege of studying in California.

For-profit students pay a lot more than community college students — especially in California — in order to get the classes they need without delay. It can be a smart choice: Graduation rates are much higher for students in two-year for-profit programs than for community college students.

New regulations limit for-profit colleges

New federal regulations aimed for-profit colleges will ban paying recruiters by how many students they sign up and will try to define a credit hour, reports AP.  The new rules also make it easier for the Education Department to crack down on  deceptive advertising and marketing.

The most controversial proposal –a “gainful employment” rule that would cut off loan eligibility to vocational programs with high student-debt levels and low repayment rates — is still under discussion. The Education Department will hear from industry spokesmen at hearings set for Nov. 4 and 5.

Defining a credit hour is controversial.  The traditional definition — class time plus study time — doesn’t fit  alternative learning formats, such as online learning or internships.

“It’s quite likely they’ve federalized the definition of credit hour,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs for the American Council on Education, an umbrella group that represents higher education. “Our position is that no successful and diverse industry is improved by federalizing important aspects of it.”

Originally, the department wanted the right to approve new vocational programs, requiring five years of enrollment projections and documentation from employers showing the curriculum aligns with job needs.  Educators complained that would make it difficult to offer training in new technologies, such as “green jobs.” In the final version, schools need only notify the department 90 days in advance of starting new programs.

Harris Miller, CEO of the for-profit college industry’s main lobbyist, Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, called the change “a much more reasonable and pragmatic approach.”

For-profit education companies’ stock prices edged up in response to the announcement.  Stock values have declined by 47 percent since April.

College learns how to reach Hispanics

Reaching out to Hispanic students doesn’t mean translating ads into Spanish, Coastline Community College has learned. The southern California college turned to alPunto Advertising to understand the market, reports Community College Times.

The college serves Orange County, which is about one third Hispanic. Through focus groups, marketers learned that prospective students understood English  well, but didn’t see the college’s advertising as “Hispanic-friendly.”

Coastline was told to focus on “serious students,” who want to “get in, get out and start working.” In addition, focus groups showed Hispanics need to know what community colleges charge and how to get financial aid.

Coastline should emphasize a Hispanic-friendly (but not Hispanic) campus, alPunto advised.

CCC was encouraged to host and publicize events that honor and embrace Hispanic people and traditions, showcasing a variety of ethnicities in its advertising and on its Web site.

Finally, alPunto encouraged Coastline to make it clear community college is open and affordable to undocumented students, who pay in-state tuition rates.

On a modest budget, CCC was able to run ads in local high school yearbooks and newspapers. Online ads will be placed on social networking sites and other sites popular with young Hispanics when the college can afford it.

Coastline also runs public service announcements on local Spanish radio stations:  The free ads tout community colleges in general but end with Coastline’s information.

The college will incorporate the Hispanic-friendly ideas into its overall marketing campaign. After all, most potential students are concerned about price and serious about earning a credential quickly.

Many community colleges have cut back on marketing, reports Inside Higher Ed. Short on cash and long on students, colleges don’t think they need to advertise their offerings. Meanwhile, for-profit institutions are advertising heavily and taking an ever larger share of the market.