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Steve Gunderson: For-profit schools are the right choice for some students


The Cap Times - September 7, 2012

I would like to thank the Cap Times for your recent coverage of the role that private sector colleges and universities are playing in central Wisconsin. Todd Finkelmeyer’s story, “Do for-profit schools adequately serve students?” is an excellent study of the diversity that exists among post-secondary students in 2012. The article underlines the fact that no two students are the same, and that the traditional model of higher education, while perfectly fine for some, may not be an option for many students looking to enter, or re-enter, the workforce.

I’m a good example, having thrived at the UW during my undergraduate years. But upon graduation, I wanted to go into broadcasting. It was clear I needed some practical education beyond the theory of a great liberal arts school. So I enrolled in a for-profit broadcasting school in Minneapolis. The combination was perfect for my needs.

Right now, private sector colleges and universities are providing 3.9 million students with a skills-based education. The article highlights local students who are working toward a degree or have already begun their career in high-demand occupations. Nationwide, graduates of two-year and less-than-two-year private sector colleges and universities have seen an average annual personal income increase of 54 percent.

Despite the numbers, there are those who allow ideology to trump reality. They believe that the private sector has no place in education, and because of this belief they deride nontraditional institutions and in doing so threaten the credibility of the students who have worked hard to earn a degree. Reading Finkelmeyer’s article, I was disheartened by the representatives of Madison College who took unwarranted and, quite frankly, uneducated potshots at private sector education.

Unlike the schools that these administrators represent, private sector colleges and universities do not receive direct taxpayer subsidies. Instead, they pay taxes. And we serve very different college students. Our sector’s students are 65 percent women, 61 percent adult students, 40 percent are Hispanic or African-American, and 96 percent are eligible for financial aid. For most, this is their only chance for a post-secondary education to get the skills that will provide real jobs, real incomes, and a real chance for middle-class lives.

When our country is facing the challenge of providing post-secondary education for up to 23 million additional workers this decade, career colleges have already contributed more than 1 million post-secondary credentials — over 800,000 degrees and 220,000 undergraduate certificates — in the first academic year of the decade. While public dollars are limiting the ability of traditional colleges to expand; and when for-profit colleges are delivering focused academics, innovative use of technology and flexible schedules, we should all celebrate the diversity of today’s postsecondary education delivery system.

I am fully of the belief that there is enough room in education for private, nonprofit, community, and career based institutions. The flexible schedule, open enrollment, and skills-based education offered by a private sector college may work for a single mother, veteran or low-income student, but it may be a poor fit for someone else. We are doing an injustice to the millions of students looking for options when we resort to attacking institutions simply because they don’t share a business model.

Steve Gunderson is president and CEO of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities. He is a former Republican congressman who represented Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District.