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.
"I think a lot of [critics] haven't even been to an actual [for-profit] school," said Penny Lee, managing director of the Coalition of Educational Success, which represents more than 70 career colleges across the country. "They're not used to having a business model associated with education."
Ms. Lee, a political strategist who has worked for prominent Democrats including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, said many in her party simply can't stomach the words "education" and "profit" in the same sentence.
She likened it to the for-profit hospital system, which in many areas has largely replaced medical centers affiliated with the Catholic Church, for example.
The negative publicity has taken its toll.
Mr. Jenkins said Corinthian stock prices tumbled after a particularly harsh Senate hearing last year. They also took a big hit last summer after the Government Accountability Office released a stinging report that found misleading or deceptive practices at 15 randomly selected for-profits.
The GAO later revised its report and released audiotapes of the undercover interviews it conducted, but the office stands by the report's general findings.
Senate Republicans now call the report "flawed."
Mr. Jenkins disputes the notion that for-profits don't care about student loan defaults and graduation rates and argues that Everest and other nontraditional colleges have "a lot of skin" in the game when it comes to making sure students get what they pay for. He said the federal government isn't wasting money in the form of Pell Grants and student loans.
The firestorm may just be getting started. The U.S. Department of Education this week finalized its proposed "gainful employment" regulation, designed to hold for-profits accountable for the taxpayer money they receive. The proposal has been sent to the White House budget office for review.
Although it is unclear exactly what the proposal will be, the original draft from last year would bar for-profit programs from accepting students paying with taxpayer money if less than 35 percent of former students don't begin repaying their loans within three years.
Ms. Lee said she has been told that the revised version will be less harsh, but still could have a "devastating effect" on the industry.
"Many of them, likely, will cease to operate," she said.
Like for-profit proponents and many congressional Republicans, Mr. Jenkins said, the Education Department and critics such as Mr. Harkin make a huge mistake by focusing their attention exclusively on for-profits instead of addressing problems across the spectrum of higher education.
For-profits, he said, play a different role than public universities, and students are and should continue to be free to make their own choices.
"If you want to go to [New York University], major in political thought, pay 50 grand a year and then be a barista at Starbucks, that's your choice," he said. "Our students aren't coming here for that."
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