Top higher-ed official satisfied with performance of for-profit schools

Despite national concerns about the quality of for-profit colleges, Connecticut’s higher education commissioner expressed confidence this week as the state reaccredited one school and approved another to begin operation in the state.

“We are very capable of assessing programs and determining if it meets students needs,” Commissioner Michael Meotti said.

For-profits have been criticized in recent months for some of the recruiting practices behind their rapid enrollment growth. There are also concerns these schools are saddling students with debt they cannot afford for degrees they cannot use. Nationally, for-profits enroll 11 percent of higher education students but produce almost half of all loan defaulters.

These criticisms led to public hearings before the U.S. Senate committee responsible for education and a some new rules issued by the U.S. Department of Education last month.

Only about 3 percent of the 200,000 students currently enrolled in higher education programs in the state attend the state’s four for-profit colleges, but enrollment growth has been huge. In the current school year, enrollment at for-profits increased 43 percent over 2009, compared with a 3.8 percent growth in higher education overall.

By far the largest of the for-profits, Post University, won a five-year extension of its accreditation from the Board of Governors for Higher Education. Post’s enrollment, on-line and at its Waterbury campus, reached nearly 4,000 this year, an increase of 52 percent.

“We want to continue to grow, but at a reasonable pace. We don’t want to sacrifice quality,” Ronald Ogrodnik, president of Post University, told the board Wednesday. About two-thirds of Post’s 4,000 students are from Connecticut.

Ogrodnik said PU has taken numerous steps to better serve its students, including increasing the number of student advisors from three to 21 over the last five years. The number of full-time tutors has also increased from two to six. In the last 18 months Post has filled an additional 168 positions to keep up with enrollment growth.

“People want to go to school where they are going to be able to pay back their loans. … Making sure they leave with a degree and find a job is a key component,” he said.

Still, Post’s default rate on student loans rose to 9.9 percent in 2007 before falling back slightly to 9.4 percent in 2008, the most recent year for which figures re available. The state’s four-year public universities have default rates ranging from 2.4 percent to 7.5 percent.

The Board of Governors also approved the entry of the for-profit Strayer University into Connecticut. Strayer, which operates dozens of campuses from Pennsylvania to Texas, plans to enroll 100 students in business bachelor and master degree programs offered at the Verizon Wireless call center in Wallingford.

Meotti said he endorsed approval of Strayer because that program is geared toward the 800 Verizon employees in Wallingford, and Verizon is expected to provide tuition reimbursements.

“They’re not going to have student loans and they already have a job. … This seems to be low risk,” he said.

Nationally, Strayer’s loan default rate was 6.7 percent in 2008. Strayer officials at the Board of Governor’s meeting referred questions about the university to a spokesman, who did not return calls.

Ogrodnik told the Board of Governors Post also is working to increase its graduation and first-year student retention rates. Their graduation rates have typically been between 29 and 35 percent and retention rates of first year students into their second year are between 45 to 65 percent, university officials told the Board of Governors Wednesday.

“We have to make sure our students are graduating. We want our students to leave with a degree maybe just as much as they do,” Ogrodnik said during an interview.

Meotti said he agrees with several of the new federal rules announced that will require higher education institutions report their graduation rates and their job placement rates for career-focused programs.

“I think we do need to focus more on the outcomes of what is happening to these students,” he said. “Students should know how successful the school is they are attending.”

Once institutions begin reporting these figures, Meotti said he would still need state law to change to be able to take into consideration these figures when considering renewing programs.

“Right now I am not able to take into consideration those measures as much as I would like,” he said.