- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 4, 2011

These aren’t your parents’ colleges.

There are typically no sprawling campuses, no fraternities or sororities, no students reading books under trees and no sports teams.

In some cases, there aren’t campuses or classrooms at all. Instead, at many of the nation’s for-profit institutions — now under heavy scrutiny from the Obama administration — students take classes exclusively online.

If there is a physical campus, it isn’t uncommon for it to occupy a few floors in a run-of-the-mill business park. Many times, they can be found right off the highway, a beacon to would-be students, many of whom aren’t fresh out of high school, but instead have children at home and 9-to-5 jobs.

The striking differences between for-profit schools and their traditional public counterparts aren’t accidental. Rather, they are made with a purpose: no-nonsense career training with no designs of giving students the keg parties and football games that the majority of college-educated Americans have experienced.

“We serve a different kind of student. We don’t look like a traditional college,” said Kent Jenkins, a spokesman for Corinthian Colleges Inc., the umbrella company for three for-profit college brands in the U.S. and Canada. “We are built to teach folks who are looking for a different type of experience. We are about career education. We are in a business location. We have a business environment, and that’s a good thing.”

Corinthian’s Everest College branch in McLean occupies the second floor of an office building in a business park just off Interstate 495. Inside, students take classes in medical assisting, nursing and other fields, but not in the usual semester format. Classes are conducted on a month-to-month basis. Students take one class for four hours a day, five days a week. When they’re finished, they move on to the next one.

The students are usually in their mid- to late 20s or early 30s, Mr. Jenkins said. Many have children, and some work jobs while taking classes, which is why Everest classes run until 11 p.m. weeknights. Some campuses offer weekend sessions.

Ten percent to 12 percent of the nation’s college students attend for-profits such as Everest. The largest, the University of Phoenix, has been operating for more than three decades and has locations across the continent. It may be the most recognizable, in part because it pays for the naming rights at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., home of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals and college football’s Fiesta Bowl and host of Super Bowl XLII in 2008.

Other for-profits zero in on narrow areas of education. Full Sail University in Florida, for example, focuses on Web design, music, film, animation and related studies. Other institutions specialize in fashion, teach computer and technical skills, or cater to members of the military.

Critics of the entire industry say it doesn’t matter where they are or what they teach.

Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has held four hearings on for-profits, much to the chagrin of his Republican counterparts who plan to boycott the next one.

Mr. Harkin and other detractors say the for-profit sector is essentially spending gobs of money on recruitment efforts, pushing cash-strapped young adults to pay for school with government grants and loans and giving them substandard education in return.

Republicans acknowledge that the sector has problems. Some for-profits have graduate rates of less than 10 percent, according to a study by the education trade publication Youth Today.

But many argue that Democrats are on a witch hunt for ideological reasons. They note that low graduation rates and low employment rates for graduates in their fields also plague the traditional big boys of public education.

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