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Gunderson: For-Profit Schools Renew Commitment

Institutions continue to play an increasingly important role in the education of students

During the first four years of the Obama presidency, we saw sustained confrontation between the administration and private for-profit colleges and universities. The result has been an incredible investment of resources by both the Education Department and the sector in litigation that is yet to be resolved.

Because of this history, it may come as a surprise to some that a close analysis of this election suggests the president and private for-profit schools have a common mission, and that neither can succeed without the other’s success.

President Barack Obama received historic levels of support from women, African- Americans, Hispanics and young adults up to age 30. The fact of the matter is that this base of political support is the very description of the students served by our private-sector colleges. More than 60 percent of our students are women and about 40 percent are African-American or Hispanic. This link provides an opportunity for us to advance our common interests.

To properly serve both the president’s electoral coalition and our 4 million students, both sides will need to create a new partnership for progress. Anything less will result in the president failing to prepare his primary constituencies for jobs, and our schools failing to provide this same sector with the education and skills that will enable them to get private-sector jobs over the next four years.

During the campaign, Obama spoke frequently about how our national fate is intertwined with our ability and willingness for greater investment in higher education. We are hopeful that the president’s vision for educational achievement and progress is holistic. Our institutions continue to play an expanding and increasingly important role in the education of millions of students — in fact, we are engaged in providing life-enhancing opportunities for 13 percent of the post-secondary student population of the United States.

Considering the legions of working parents, single moms, veterans and underserved citizens who use our schools to bring them closer to a better life, our institutions are part of the vision the president communicated.

We are modernizing the definition of higher education and what that will look like as we head further into the 21st century. Certainly it will be far different from the modes we have become accustomed to, consisting exclusively of bricks-and-mortar campus models. By 2020, “technology will allow for more individualized, passion-based learning by the student, greater access to master teaching, and more opportunities for students to connect to others  . . .  for enhanced learning experiences,” observed the Aspen Institute’s Charlie Firestone in a recent Pew Research study.

We want to work with the president to make accommodations for these changes before it is too late.

The election was a reflection of shifting voting blocs and the growth of diverse populations as an electoral advantage, but it was also a wake-up call regarding the need to fundamentally rethink higher education.

The demographic makeup of the electorate is almost identical to the demographic makeup of private-sector colleges and universities. We want to work with the president to ensure that the groups that made up his electoral coalition are well represented when it comes time to shift the educational paradigm.

These are also groups disproportionately affected by unemployment. While the overall jobless rate is 7.9 percent, for black women it is 12.3 percent; for African Americans and Hispanics overall, it is 15 percent and 11 percent, respectively. Obama administration officials continually point to the role higher education plays in closing the “skills gap” through enhanced training and career development. The goal, according to the White House, is to increase the American workforce by 22 million by 2020, with post-secondary institutions leading the charge.

Interestingly enough, they’re describing exactly what private-sector colleges and universities do on a daily basis.

Increasingly, conventional institutions are unable to meet the demands of a diversifying and globalized American workforce. Career colleges, providing alternative means of education access for returning veterans and working families, are filling this void. In 2011, for-profit schools awarded 16 percent more degrees to their students than the previous year, compared with a 6 percent increase for all traditional higher-education institutions. And often our graduates are finding more employment opportunities than students from traditional colleges.

It is our hope that a re-elected and reinvigorated president includes our institutions in his higher-education agenda as we work to help our economy recover and prepare America’s workforce. Many of the voters who demonstrated their confidence in the incumbent are also students attending our institutions. We hope to work with his administration to build a plan that restores our competitiveness and collectively embraces our desire for an expanded, durable middle class.

Former Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., is president and CEO of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities.

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