The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Labor, Education, and Pensions has come down hard on for-profit colleges and universities with a report titled “The Failure to Safeguard the Federal Investment and Ensure Student Success.”
The document is thousands of pages long and the result of a two-year investigation of 30 of the highest-profile for-profit institutions. In the end, it concludes that for-profits are encouraging “students with modest financial resources to take a big risk by enrolling in high-tuition schools.”
Among the report’s findings are claims that more than half of students enrolled in for-profits during the 2008-09 school year dropped out within about four months; that for-profit students account for nearly 50 percent of all federal student loan defaults; and that in 2009, for-profits paid their CEOs an average salary of $7.3 million (the non-profit average is $3 million).
Perhaps the report’s most damaging allegation is that 15 publically-traded schools receive 86 percent of their revenues from U.S. taxpayers.
These findings come at a time when demand for non-traditional education options is rising exponentially. Between 2004 and 2010, associate’s degrees awarded by for-profit institutions grew by 77 percent, while bachelor’s degrees increased by 136 percent. With so many out of work and seeking to better their job prospects, these figures are likely to keep rising.
In response to the report, for-profit education leaders questioned political motives that may be driving the report, reached out to students to reassure them of the quality education they are receiving, and pointed out that they are working with the Obama Administration “to discuss ways we can work together to better serve students.”
That’s a pretty good start. But the for-profit schools must put their campaign into overdrive if they want to maintain their reputation and protect federal funding in this era of sequestration. Here’s the playbook for the for-profit schools:
Immediately stop making charges of political motivation on the part of lawmakers. Instead, let other political pundits and experts make those points.
Enlist the support of thousands of successful graduates in TV and online ads, on Facebook, Twitter, and in messages sent directly to Congress to attest to the value of the educations they have received.
Finance a national survey that shows the value to the economy that they and their graduates are providing.
Conduct a national radio talk-show tour with featuring local for-profit school graduates and educators to discuss the value of the degrees the schools offer and their impact on regional economies.
Like all institutions of higher education, for-profit colleges and universities have challenges to surmount in an era when enrollment and graduation are not always automatic gateways to success. But at the same time, they also have compelling stories of accomplishment to share and a mission that is rooted in helping all Americans reach their potential in this evolving, knowledge-based economy.
By telling those stories and better articulating that mission, for-profits can immediately begin the work of putting a report that doesn’t tell the whole story behind them.
Gene Grabowski is Executive Vice President at LEVICK, the nation’s top crisis communications firm. He is also a contributing author to LEVICK Daily. Connect with him @crisisguru.