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2011 March 21 - 12:00 am

POV: What Community Colleges Can Learn from For-Profit Schools

Felipe Payan

I remember attending East Los Angeles Community College (ELAC) back in the fall of 1982. Ronald Reagan was president, interest rates were 19 percent, unemployment was hovering around 10 percent and California’s governor was Jerry Brown.

My, how things have changed. Today, I am an instructor at Los Angeles Southwest Community College, Barack Obama is president, interest rates are at rock bottom levels, unemployment is about 10 percent and our governor once again is Jerry Brown.

It’s déjà vu all over again, except when I was a student at ELAC there was no tuition and textbooks were cheap. You could even check them out from the library. My siblings and I were all able to graduate and transfer from ELAC at no cost to my working class parents. We all later graduated from four-year colleges with no student loan debt. Today’s, it’s different. Sad to say, but the community college model that allowed students like me to get an education with little cost is long gone, like the rotary telephones or the full-service gas station.

Today, many of our students are deluged with radio and TV commercials and slick websites promoting for-profit colleges such as Devry, Westwood, ITT and the leader in for-profit education, the University of Phoenix. These for-profit colleges attract large numbers of Hispanic and African-American students. For-profit college recruiters work communities of color, bolstering their profit margins at the expense of their local community college. According to a congressional report, the average for-profit student drops out after several months owing $9,000 to $10,000 with no certificate or diploma.

But I believe there are strategies we can implement to counter the for-profit colleges aggressive marketing which leaves many of our most vulnerable students deeply in debt, with no degree or certificate to show for their effort and expense.

Besides the aggressive marketing, what other factors contribute to students choosing for-profit colleges? Is it the customer service, or the accelerated educational programs that allow students to graduate in two years or less?

Having worked as an instructor for the for-profit colleges, I know many of them count work experience as credit toward a degree or certificate. In addition, they walk students through the registration process, avoiding long lines and the stress over getting the right courses. The new for-profit students are ready for learning on the first day of class. These are practices worth emulating.

But I have also observed students yanked out of class when their tuition was not paid. I’d sometimes find envelopes in my mailbox alerting me not to allow certain students into the classroom because of unpaid bills. I thought to myself that I was working as a bill collector.

In December 2009, California Community College Chancellor Jack Scott signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Kaplan College — a subsidiary of the Washington Post — that was intended to direct some students from the California community colleges to the for-profit Kaplan for some courses. After a barrage of criticism, Scott terminated the agreement with Kaplan.

Nevertheless, there are things that we in the public sector can learn from the for-profit colleges. The following suggestions are low-cost and will not divert precious resources from our colleges:

  • 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.

Like airlines and sporting events where there is premium seating, we need to charge students who want priority registration, parking, transcripts and other premier services. The for-profit colleges charge for such services. In this age of austerity, we need to scour and search for every dollar to continue our service to those students in need.

As of this writing, Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed $400 million in reductions to the California community colleges. How we make up for this shortfall and continue to serve our students is critically important. I offer the following suggestions to increase revenue:

  • Go global. Expand course offerings to international students who would love to study in California. Global students pay more in fees.

  • Offer premium fee-based services to those students who can pay for accelerated services and for diplomas and certificates that can be granted in two years or less.

  • Persuade corporations to sponsor students and programs. Corporations are sitting on close to $2 trillion of cash. Follow the money!

  • Expand continuing education non credit programs. We have all heard the mantra of lifelong learning. Millions of people are looking to get an edge in the competitive job market. Continuing education should go beyond salsa dance classes and healthy cuisine courses to become a true community resource.

In the fall of 1982, I filled out a single sheet of paper and I was in college for free. Lamentably, the days of free or low-cost education in California are nothing but memories. Today, the Great Recession means we must prepare for the worst, and that means emulating the best features of for-profit colleges, while rejecting the questionable educational quality of the corporate college sector. We can’t turn our backs on students who, like me, see California Community Colleges as their last best hope.

It’s YOUR TURN!  CCW wants  to hear from you!
Q: What can public colleges learn from the for-profit sector?
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