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Community College: The Other Side of the For-Profit Dilemma

Adam Rust's picture

Posted October 3, 2014

If you are concerned about for-profit colleges, then the first place to start is at our community colleges. Simply put, they are not competing with for-profits. While it is easy to see the value proposition, local community colleges need to be better at marketing. They don't have fancy brochures and hard-pressing sales people. I wish that they did, but their institutions spend only a small pittance on promotional materials.

Community colleges can be great once a person is employed in a job. In Durham, our community college is used as an economic development tool for attracting new businesses. The general concept works like this: if you come to Durham, we will develop a special curriculum to train employees. Most often, the training is aimed at jobs that rely on technical skills for workers without college degrees. Merck, for example, uses the community college system to train people to work in "clean rooms." Our Merck campus makes vaccines. Most workers earn less than $20 per hour, but much more than minimum wage. For those individuals, their earning power increases as a result of their interaction with the community college.

But that segment differs from the target audience of for-profit schools. The for-profits tend to attract students that want to find a career. There are exceptions to the idea that they serve a population that is mutually exclusive, I can think of examples that do mirror the community college-business employer. One of our hair salon schools feeds into Great Clips. Even so, that is not the norm.

In that situation, the community colleges compete with for-profit schools. The for-profits have marketing departments. Don't underestimate the power of being wanted.  I recently had a conversation a co-worker that spoke to this dynamic. She came in to ask for advice for a family friend who was considering going to a Miller-Motte. "She doesn't really know what she wants to do," she told me. "But they found her, so she is really excited." 

The first question I had was how much will this cost? We went to the website, but it turned out that you cannot learn the cost of tuition without submitting a w-2 and/or a bank statement. So, I don't know how much it would be. With a Pell Grant, Durham Tech would be free. But going to Durham Tech has its downsides. Let's compare Durham Tech to the only for-profit school with a campus in Durham. 

  • Whereas our Art Institute campus is located in the shadow of the most beautiful mixed-office space in the city, Durham Tech is in an isolated stretch of town where the only proximate building is a public-housing complex.
  • The Art Institute's campus is near at least twenty restaurants. Several days a week, a hot dog truck rolls up in the parking lot at Durham Tech.
  • The Art Institute has banks of computers with video production software, a dedicated restaurant for its chef program, and a museum space to exhibit student work. There is a library in the basement at Durham Tech. Students can use it to review the card catalog. 

The takeaway is the Durham Tech is competing on price in a market where students can consume immediately and pay for the next fifteen years. As a business strategy, the value proposition is mismatched with demand. Price has little appeal if you can convince students that the value of the education differs. The low-income students who make up a disproportionate share of their student bodies are really no different than the students attending "not-for-profit" schools that tend to draw an upper-income population. Even though Duke costs north of $45,000 per year, it would be hard to imagine that someone would opt to go to UNC-Pembroke solely because the cost would be less. 

Not too long ago, I went to a graduation ceremony for the senior class of students at a for-profit college. At a reception afterwards, the students set up tables in a banquet hall with their portfolios. Some of the work was very impressive. The culinary students had created menus for the restaurant and catering menus that they hoped to establish. The graphic designers had a variety of infographics, web pages, and logos. Some of the work was from externships. The photographers had their pictures. While most of them weren't too my taste, the technical quality was high.

An aside: I used to be a photojournalist, so I like to see "real pictures," and not Photoshop-driven photo illustration work. Check out the work of Eugene Richards, Anthony Suau, James Nachtwey, David Allen Harvey, and William Albert Allard. I challenge you to find better representations of our times. 

Back to the graduation: As I struck up a conversation with a culinary student, I asked him why he went to a for-profit when he could have studied culinary at a nearby community college.

"I'm only going to go to school once," he said. "I'm not going to go twice. It would be more expensive for me to spend two years at a second-rate program and then not find any work, or find a job that I could have gotten without a degree. Now I've got connections across the country. I've made menus. I have a specialization in pastry, which isn't offered at the community college. The truth is that I wanted to go the best school that I could get into, not the one with the lowest price." 

If we really want to attack student debt, we have to address how we think of community colleges. At this point in time, community colleges are systematically underfunded. Debt loads are not derived from going to a community college. Rather, they are the product of a system that doesn't appeal to young people. How many community colleges look like high schools? How many feel like high school, absent the school spirit and a modern computer lab?

In some states, budgets are actually reducing their spending, even though populations are growing. They are reducing their funding while simultaneously claiming to be concerned about income inequality. I think part of the problem is political. How many decision-makers in General Assemblies and State Houses are graduates of community colleges? How many even travel in circles with people who have graduated from a community college? I can't imagine that there are many. The appropriations committee at North Carolina's GA has, at least until recently, been made up of graduates of UNC-Chapel Hill. That's where they put their higher education dollars. 

Because of this vacuum, there is a demand for for-profit schools. The people most drawn to those schools tend to come from the parts of society who have less, who are the first in their family to enroll in school, and who are entirely focused on getting a job. There are some serious problems with some of the curricula at for-profits, but from the outside they manage to market themselves. No one markets community college. That is too bad.