For-Profit Haters Now Must Line Up Behind the President

Sitting to the first lady’s right, Jackie Bray of Kings Mountain, North Carolina was supposed to represent a humble and understated community college success story during President Obama’s third State of the Union address on Tuesday night.

She looked the part in studious glasses frames and pants suit. She was obviously a long, long way away from losing her job as a packaging mechanic, now leading a completely re-tooled life.

The seats to the left and right of Michelle Obama are the most coveted in the house. When you are literally in the television picture so often, you represent something larger than yourself, and you're guaranteed a mention from the President.

Mr. Obama spoke about Bray’s accomplishments directly in his remarks, while there was a striking omission of career colleges in his plans to relieve the struggles of the nation's middle class. He called on Congress to expand job-training programs at community colleges, using Bray’s example as a catalyst. She was laid off like so many other Americans have been only to see her life changed by a corporate-community college partnership.

The electronics and electrical engineering company, Siemens, formed a partnership with Central Piedmont Community College to design courses and training for a new state-of-the-art gas turbine factory opening in Charlotte. They paid for Bray’s education, then hired her to help operate the facility.

Once Obama told of Bray’s advancement through community college education, he said:

“Now you need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers, places that teach people skills that business are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing. And I want to cut through the maze of confusing training programs. From now on, people like Jackie have one program, one website, and one place to go to get all the information and help that they need. It is time to turn our unemployment system into a re-employment system that puts people to work.”

While this might sound like an altruistic vision to the American public, those of us aligned with the career education field see this for what it’s worth. The president, by omission, told the nation it doesn’t need career colleges. He effectively said, “We can do it better without you.”

As we’ve known for the better part of two years now, the president has been quietly waging a battle against “for-profit” schools and their role in career education. He used the pieces within his power, chiefly the Department of Education, and his hand-selected choice to lead the department, Arne Duncan. The “gainful employment” rule was the first step in undermining the mission of for-profits, and that came packaged with hearings led by Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) that were as flubbed as they could be imagined, but still carried the general message through the media that for-profit schools were predatory, rip-off institutions that survive on Federal financial aid.

These efforts, though, were orchestrated by the current presidential administration. Aside from a gathering of community college officials at the Capitol for an awards ceremony and a few sparse comments about reshaping community colleges with a new funding measure, the president managed to somehow keep in the background on the efforts to put career colleges on the backburner, permanently.

But by omitting career colleges entirely from the mission to save the middle class, he’s become the confident front man in taking the sector down. Now the opponents of the for-profit sector are lining up – and in some cases, mobilizing. They are out there, waiting – with folded newspapers under their arms and lighters in their back pockets – ready to set fire to whatever new bridges the career colleges try to build.

The naysayers are too many to number. They range from Washington politicians to disgruntled students armed with blogs.  There are organizations that have formed to see career colleges fail (see also Campus Progress and Service Employees International Union.) But now these haters are going to have to stand in line behind President Obama.

This week, we saw another player take a large step forward. Along with veterans who said they were duped by career colleges, Senator Dick Durbin spoke at a forum in Chicago Monday about for-profit schools. The Senator wants to do more to make sure the schools don't unfairly target U.S. veterans. Durbin said that he's going to introduce legislation designed to reduce incentives for for-profit colleges to aggressively recruit veterans. His goal is to turn the familiar 90/10 rule to something like 85/15.

Durbin’s message also sounds altruistic. Under the guise of protecting military students from “predatory” for-profit schools, he is taking a stance that to the general public sounds pro-America. Behind this effort, though, is an effort to drive down prices at for-profits while channeling more students to community colleges and traditional colleges and universities. Does that solution impact our present economic circumstances impacting students, especially those seeking a career-based education?

Bray’s accomplishments are an everyday occurrence at career colleges. So are partnerships with local employers and jobs that fit the needs of the community. Obama’s administration is creating the confusing maze to job training. The "re-employment system" already exists … for the types of jobs he specifically mentions. To my knowledge, career colleges do not offer job training courses on government or leadership, but perhaps they should.

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