- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A few months ago, Dawn Connor was just another college student, attending night courses to become a veterinary technician and practicing her trade by spaying and neutering dogs and cats from a local shelter.

These days, the 33-year-old from Eau Claire, Wis., is shaking hands on Capitol Hill and speaking at news conferences in Las Vegas — the new public face of the satisfied for-profit college student.

Standing closely behind her is the Career College Association, a lobbying group for for-profit schools that provided the organizational muscle to launch the grass-roots-sounding Students for Academic Choice at a time when for-profit colleges are under fire.

The Career College Association helped the students establish a website, draft bylaws and set up an online election that resulted in Ms. Connor’s being elected the group’s president - all at a time when for-profit colleges are intensifying lobbying efforts against tougher federal regulations expected to be proposed in the coming days.

“I’m skeptical of the organic nature of the group, given that it is completely toeing the association’s line,” said Christine Lindstrom, higher education program director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Harris Miller, president of the Career College Association, said his group extended a helping hand to busy nontraditional students who otherwise wouldn’t have a voice - and he says the new group stands on its own.

“This will be, I think, as this organization grows and gets legs, an effective antidote to those people who hang on a few disgruntled students or former students and somehow think it’s typical of the student reality,” Mr. Miller said.

Although for-profit schools make up the fastest-growing sector of higher education, there’s been little organizing by students themselves. When a voice is heard, it’s usually a dissatisfied former student or graduate describing dubious recruitment practices, staggering debt or training that left him or her ill-prepared to pay it off.

That has long irritated for-profit school officials. But no student countermessage has emerged until now, a sensitive time for for-profit colleges.

Last week, Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, announced plans to hold hearings starting June 24 to examine federal education spending at for-profit colleges.

In the coming days, the Education Department is expected to propose new regulations that could, among other things, cut off federal aid to vocational programs whose graduates don’t earn enough to pay off their student loans.

Studies show for-profit students are much more likely than other students to default on their loans, and the government is paying closer attention because of the huge amounts of federal aid students take to the schools.

For-profit schools are lobbying hard against the so-called “gainful employment” proposal, which also would apply to community colleges but don’t pose a threat to them because their tuition is low.

Fighting the regulations is the first cause of Students for Academic Choice, which gathered 32,000 signatures on an online petition opposing the rules to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Mr. Miller said it’s been hard for students in the sector to get involved politically because so many of them balance school, work and families. Other college student associations, he said, are funded in large part by their universities and colleges, and their student leaders are given time off by their schools to take part in activities.

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