For-Profit Colleges Under Fire Over Value, Accreditation | News

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For-Profit Colleges Under Fire Over Value, Accreditation

For Chelsi Miller, the wake-up call came when University of Utah officials said her credits wouldn't transfer from her old school.

Utah's flagship public university accepted her to its pre-med program last fall but said her courses at Everest College, a national for-profit institution with a campus in Salt Lake City, wouldn't count toward her bachelor's degree. That left Miller with a 3.9 grade-point average for an associate's degree that she says did nothing to advance her education and career goals. And, she has more than $30,000 in student-loan debt.

She says Everest misled her when it suggested her credits would transfer and misrepresented what it would cost her.

"I feel as if I had been sold a college experience from a used-car salesman," says Miller, 26, of Midvale, Utah, who last week filed a class-action lawsuit in state court with two other students accusing Corinthian Colleges, Everest's owner, of fraud.

Miller's claim - which Corinthian disputes - is the latest in a string of actions raising questions about for-profit colleges, whose enrollments are soaring as many Americans beef up their education as a hedge in a tough job market.

In 2008, about 2,000 for-profit colleges eligible for federal student aid enrolled nearly 1.8 million students - an increase of 225% in 10 years. About 9% of all college students now attend for-profits; most attend schools owned by one of 15 large, publicly traded companies that each enroll tens of thousands of students. Last year, federal student loans and grants made up an average 77% of revenue at the five largest for-profits.

Advocates of for-profit colleges say their programs, which often operate online or in rented office space, serve a key role in educating students who juggle work and family demands. But the U.S. government has stepped up its scrutiny amid growing concern that for-profits are reeling in billions of dollars in federal aid by using aggressive - some say deceptive - practices to lure students to programs that might not yield a useful education.

The Education Department has proposed penalizing for-profits whose students graduate with more debt than they can afford, and Congress began a series of hearings this summer on whether federal aid to for-profit colleges - more than $24 billion in 2008-09 - is being put to good use.

"It is our responsibility to ensure that for-profit colleges are putting the needs of students before the needs of shareholders," says Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of a Senate education committee whose hearing Thursday aims to explore the magnitude of the federal investment in for-profits. "We need to learn more about whether students are succeeding at these schools and whether the taxpayer investment is actually benefiting students."

A question of standards

As the topic heats up in Washington, more than 1,000 students are expected to converge on Capitol Hill today in support of for-profit colleges. But for others, including Miller, the problems with for-profits start with concern about accreditation, a coveted assurance of educational quality.

Accreditation, a sort of third-party seal of approval designed to protect consumers and taxpayers from diploma mills, is important to colleges because the Education Department relies on it to determine which schools may get federal student aid. It's important to students because it can help them transfer credits from one college to another and can signal that a candidate's academic training has met certain standards.

It's also confusing because there is more than one type of accreditation.

Miller says she was "a naive single mother from a small farm town" when she responded to an ad for Everest's surgical technology program. When she asked if her credits would transfer to the University of Utah, she says, an Everest admissions official "assured me that the college was going through an accreditation change and would have full accreditation by the time I graduated."

In fact, Everest College is accredited by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, one of the more than 70 organizations recognized by the Education Department.

The problem: The organization is a national body.

Historically, for-profit colleges have been accredited mostly by national groups, which traditionally have focused on short-term college programs in fields such as the culinary arts, medical billing or business administration.

In contrast, most non-profit, degree-granting public and private institutions are accredited by one of six regional bodies. (To complicate matters more, some professional associations accredit academic programs in fields such as pharmacy or nursing at both regionally and nationally accredited institutions.)

Those historic distinctions are blurring as more for-profits offer degree programs, which make them eligible for regional accreditation. Types of accreditation differ because institutional missions differ, but most specialists in higher ed accreditation agree that regional accreditation, which takes at least two years for a college to earn and must be renewed every 10 years, is considered the most rigorous and most prestigious.

Kevin Kinser, an education professor at the State University of New York at Albany who studies the for-profit higher education industry, estimates that close to half of all for-profit enrollments today are in schools that have been regionally accredited. The credential serves "a legitimizing function," he says.

Colleges "promote that about themselves, often in terms (such as), 'We have the same accreditation as the University of Chicago.' "

It's up to institutions to decide whether to accept or deny transfer credits, but many use accreditation status as a guideline. The University of Utah, for example, requires students who want to transfer from nationally accredited schools such as Everest to seek permission from its faculty to get credit for courses already taken at a different institution.

"Often those courses are found lacking in some way or another," says Suzanne Wayment, associate director of admissions at the University of Utah. For example, she says, an algebra textbook used by a nationally accredited school may be for an introductory course, while the university requires that students complete a higher-level course.

On the other hand, she says, the university tweaked its policy this summer, when it began allowing coursework from the regionally accredited University of Phoenix, the USA's largest for-profit college, to count as elective credits. Wayment says officials from the University of Phoenix - which enrolls about 476,000 students nationwide, either online or at one of more than 200 locations - recently requested a review because the original policy, in place since the 1980s, was outdated.

Manny Rivera, spokesman for the Apollo Group, which owns the University of Phoenix, says "it is the student's responsibility to confirm whether credits earned at University of Phoenix will be accepted by another institution."

But Harris Miller, president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, which represents about 1,800 for-profit institutions, suggests that many more non-profit schools follow blanket policies that waste students' - and taxpayers' - time and money because students have to retake a course "over and over."

"Even when a school does become regionally accredited, other schools will often take a discriminatory attitude simply because they're for-profit," he says. "The stratification of the higher-ed system is incredibly elite."

Confused students

Recent lawsuits, and a probe by the Government Accountability Office, suggest that some nationally accredited colleges may be exploiting confusion about accreditation by omitting or glossing over relevant details.

The GAO report, for example, said a representative for the nationally accredited Kaplan College in Florida told an undercover government investigator who was pursuing an associate's degree in criminal justice that the college was accredited by "the top accrediting agency - Harvard, the University of Florida, they all use that accrediting agency." But that was not true.

A class-action lawsuit filed in August against the for-profit Westwood College in California noted that the college's website said the school was a candidate for regional accreditation but failed "to disclose that it has been a candidate for two years and was passed over for accreditation during its first evaluation."

And Chelsi Miller's lawsuit argues that Corinthian is "aware of prospective students' ignorance of, or confusion about, this important distinction."

Kent Jenkins, vice president of public affairs communications at Corinthian Colleges, declined to comment on Miller's case. But, he said, "we are very straightforward and direct with our students and prospective students about what they can expect from their diploma or degree. We have detailed processes and procedures that require our admissions counselors to disclose whether credits are or are not likely to transfer to other institutions.

"We work very hard to treat our students honestly and fairly, and we don't tolerate deception, period."

In a development that has captured the interest of the Education Department, a growing number of for-profits have taken a shortcut to regional accreditation: buying an already accredited non-profit college. At least 11 non-profits have been converted to for-profits that way in recent years, Kinser says.

In 2004, for example, investors purchased Grand Canyon University, then a small, financially struggling Christian college in Phoenix that has been accredited since 1968 by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits more than 1,000 institutions in 19 states. Today, Grand Canyon enrolls 40,000 students, most of them in its online program.

Regional accrediting associations, facing a policy development that didn't exist until for-profit colleges began to proliferate, have since tightened their reins or are re-examining rules regarding ownership changes. In February, the Higher Learning Commission told Chancellor University in Cleveland, which was acquired in 2008 by a for-profit company, that it would withdraw accreditation unless the school could show that it met certain criteria. In June, it denied re-accreditation for Dana College in Blair, Neb., which was in the process of being purchased by a for-profit company. The college has since closed.

"This is the type of thing we want to keep a close eye on," says James Kvaal, a deputy undersecretary of education.

But federal officials and lawmakers are not just watching for-profit colleges.

The Education Department's inspector general, who investigates compliance problems, threatened in December to strip the Higher Learning Commission's authority because it approved accreditation of the for-profit American InterContinental University despite an agreement among commission members that the school had an "egregious" policy of giving more credit for certain graduate and undergraduate courses than was "common practice in higher education."

This summer, lawmakers grilled officials of regional and national accreditors during hearings about whether colleges found to engage in questionable practices - such as encouraging students to lie on their financial aid forms or pressuring students to sign legally binding contracts - should be allowed to keep their accreditation. Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., ranking member of the Senate's education committee, has said he wants any investigation of problems in the for-profit higher education industry "to also include a review of all institutions of higher education."

Those developments worry many leaders of traditional college and universities, who comply with a host of federal regulations but for decades have fought to keep federal regulators out of classroom matters. Accreditors say they're taking the government's concerns seriously.

"The absence of credibility for accreditation means the absence of credibility for our colleges, universities and programs," says Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, a membership organization of degree-granting colleges that advocates for self-regulation of academic quality.

Harris Miller, head of the association of for-profit schools, says he would welcome wider federal oversight to ensure quality. He says his schools, and particularly their completion rates, would stack up favorably when compared with community college systems, the for-profit sector's main competitors.

But Chelsi Miller, who has put more schooling on hold until she can save more money, says something has to change so more students aren't duped.

"I received misleading guidance and answers that led me to sign my life away," she says. "I can't speak to other colleges, but as far as Everest goes, they really have taken advantage of people that cannot afford to be taken advantage of."


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