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Copying Off The Test: For-Profit Colleges May Benefit from a City College Win 

Tuesday, Nov 18 2014
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The courtroom drama to keep City College of San Francisco open is often viewed as a moral battle: The college artery pumps essential firefighters, mechanics, chefs, nurses, and plumbers into the body of this city.

The college's nearly free (and sometimes totally free) classes are considered vital in transforming the have-nots into haves. Supplying so many low-cost classes is its blessing and its supposed curse.

Last year, the school's accreditor started the process of revoking CCSF's ability to offer legitimate degrees, saying it was like a pauper giving to charity. The acreditor claimed that CCSF has been offering too many classes to too many people on a bare-bones budget. This accusation angered students who have since vilified the Accrediting Commission of Community and Junior Colleges.

Now, the city is suing to keep the college in business. CCSF will remain open to students until the legal issues are resolved.

But the trial might have some unintended consequences that don't bode well for Bay Area students, especially ones who CCSF might serve: Education advocates are warning that for-profit colleges could try to piggyback onto City College's legal arguments and political strategies to fight their own education battles.

You could call it the City College Defense.

California's Corinthian Colleges, Inc. (which owns Heald College in San Francisco and WyoTech), for instance, is fending off a lawsuit from State Attorney General Kamala Harris who's accusing the institution of false and predatory advertising. Meanwhile, national education watchdogs pushed the federal government to pass new laws that now require for-­profit colleges to improve job placement rates or risk losing lucrative federal funding, potentially closing their doors.

Now, for-profits hope to use City College's legal and political strategies to help get them off the hook.

"They're quite creative in their arguments," former­ Department of Education Undersecretary Bob Shireman tells SF Weekly, referring to the for-­profit colleges. "They pay millions of dollars to communications professionals to figure out how to fleece taxpayers and students."

Advocates of for­-profit schools have already cited City College's trial while arguing for less government oversight. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Steve Gunderson, the president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, defended for-­profits, adding that political heavyweights such as Nancy Pelosi and Jackie Speier have staunchly defended CCSF while leaving for-­profit colleges in dire straits with harsh new federal regulations.

"There is a very inconsistent approach," he told the Times. He also noted Corinthian "had a much higher graduation rate than the San Francisco school" and other community colleges.

This is an important factor, as graduation and transfer rates formed an important part of the City Attorney's argument against CCSF's accreditors closing the college.

Here's how for-­profit colleges are adapting that argument to their advantage: Next year, when Congress considers renewing the Higher Education Act, Gunderson may use CCSF's argument to attempt to loosen regulations on for-profit colleges.

And why not? The defense seems to be working for CCSF: Recently, crafty City Attorneys plunked the California Community College Chancellor, Brice Harris, on the witness stand to exercise the City College Defense. Harris told the court that CCSF graduates and transfers more students than other California community colleges, which should justify keeping it open. The accreditors were wrong to shutter the school, he said, since it's clear CCSF is doing its job.

But for­-profit colleges graduate lots of people, too, and so could use a similar argument to keep their doors open. There's a catch, though: The federal government found degrees from for-­profit colleges often don't amount to much.

The job placement rate at for-­profits is so low, their graduates represent 40 percent of student loan defaults nationally, despite being a smaller segment of graduates overall. So students who graduate from for-profit colleges often can't find jobs, and end up mired in debt.

For-­profits, including Corinthians' Heald College or DeVry, have long been scrutinized by state and federal regulators who say that in addition to high debt and low job placements, the institutions also engage in predatory recruitment tactics. These colleges are known for investing big bucks on advertisers and recruitment centers to court students who have access to hefty federal loans, the focus of reports by Frontline, the Washington Post, and others. But in the end, these pricey private colleges cost four times as much as a community college such as CCSF — with little guarantee students will see a worthy return on their investment.

In her lawsuit against Corinthians, Attorney General Kamala Harris alleges that for-­profit colleges target poor students with advertisements that oversell the worth of the degrees, and even advertise classes that don't exist. She also alleges students of for­-profits often go broke soon after graduation.

Still, for-­profit advocates insist their schools should also be protected by the community (and politicians), just as CCSF is, because of their graduation rates. But at a recent education roundtable, people dogged for­-profit schools and their tactics.

"By only counting completion, a school can be a dropout factory and get away with it," said Nancy Zirkin, director of policy for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, on the panel.

They let failing students fail, she said, but "schools don't get a bad mark for it" because they're measuring successes and ignoring the rest.

If you only count the winners, you always win. But these same statistics are measured differently at CCSF, and were used in the defense of the embattled school.

CCSF graduates those in need of remedial education (read: high school basics) at a higher level than many colleges nationwide. This isn't the case at for-profits, says David Bergeron, vice president of post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress. "For-­profit colleges don't do any remediation," he says.

Further, Bergeron says, "very few [CCSF] students default on their student loans," while Corinthian "struggled to deliver value [to] students for years."

Attorneys SF Weekly talked to noted that for-profits may not end up using CCSF's trial defense to save them from closure. But for-profits might use the City College defense to bolster themselves politically.

"This is more the argument they'll make in the court of public opinion," says Trace Urdan, a senior analyst with Wells Fargo. As a for-profit college analyst, he defends the industry by pointing to the population it serves: the poorest and least-educated among us.

"There should be common standards," he says, referring to penalties which constrict for-profits but not community colleges. Urdan, a staunch defender of for-profit schools, sees a CCSF victory as potentially legitimizing for-profits as well.

"I don't know if it's an effective defense in court," he says. "But if City College prevails, it will cement [the for-profit industry's] moral argument with Congress, their critics, and anyone who will listen to them."

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Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

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