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Competing with for-profit colleges

You can’t find a news story today about community colleges that doesn’t mention the sharp decline in enrollment. Community colleges were expecting a big, recession-fueled boom, and so far, it hasn’t materialized. In fact, community college enrollment for the Fall declined by nearly 10%. While some community colleges have boosted their enrollments using creative strategies to retain students, many schools are still looking for students.
They might find their missing students at for-profit colleges.

Enrollment there is up 3% this fall. That’s a shift from previous years, when enrollment skidded amid Obama-era regulations. One of those regulations required all schools that receive federal funds to publish their post-graduation employment statistics. While “gainful employment” rule was in place, enrollment at for-profit colleges cratered.

In 2019, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos eliminated that reporting rule. Within 12 months, enrollment was on the upswing at for-profit colleges once again. For-profit colleges don’t’ draw students away from universities as much as they do from community colleges. They primarily “specialize” in job-training and career education programs. Only after graduation, when students are confronted with big bills and largely worthless diplomas, do they begin to question the value of a for-profit degree.

Combatting the for-profit enrollment drain must be among a community college’s highest priorities. For-profit colleges often rely on expensive marketing campaigns and low initial costs to draw in students. They also count on students’ lack of knowledge about higher education costs, lower-cost options, and employment outcomes. This is especially true for adult learners, who no longer have regular contact with guidance counselors or other education advisors.

Education is the antidote to for-profit colleges

Community colleges need to educate potential consumers about the benefits of choosing a lower-cost, higher quality educational option. One good way to do that is by continuing to collect and publish post-graduation employment statistics. “Gainful employment” reporting isn’t a federal requirement anymore, but the metrics still have value. Externally, community colleges can show the rate at which their programs lead to meaningful employment opportunities for graduates. (Ultimately, that’s what adult learners want.)

Second, collecting this data helps the school and its programs strengthen curricula and make degrees more meaningful. (That’s what employers want.)

Finally, publishing the data is a form of accountability. For better or worse, it says, “This is the objective value of our programs.” (That’s what the taxpayers want.)

To be honest, WCC’s last published “gainful employment” data was … lacking. WCC must be accountable to its students, community employers and other higher education students, and to the taxpayers. Nothing screams unaccountability louder than the unwillingness to measure and publish the impact of a community college’s career programs.

Gainful employment metrics are marketing tools that can work either way. When they’re absent, they work in favor of the school that shouts the loudest or has the shiniest marketing campaign. When they’re present, they offer indisputable evidence of a school’s worth.

Photo Credit: US Army Garrison – Miami , via Flickr