Mara Hansen (left) and her daughter, Zoey. Mara says the training she got at the for-profit ITT Technical Institute helped her land a job at FEMA.
For-profit colleges and universities have been mounting a big lobbying campaign this week, in advance of a Senate hearing Thursday. The hearing will present more evidence that the industry is abusing students, and that stricter regulation is needed. For-profit schools are turning to what they say is the best evidence that this form of education works: the students themselves.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) says he wants the hearing to answer to some basic questions -- like, why do so many students default on their college loans?
At a recent hearing, Harkin asked, "Why are such large numbers of students turning over, presumably dropping out? Are they leaving these schools with debt, and no degree? How can this be happening in such large numbers?"
In a third hearing on the subject Thursday, Harkin's Health and Education Committee will present more damning evidence against the for-profit school industry. The hearing will likely add to the portrait of for-profit students as hapless victims of ruthless recruiting campaigns. But the panel will not hear from students who love their for-profit schools.
Mara Hansen is a 35-year-old single mom. She lives with her daughter, Zoey, and her dog in a small apartment in Winchester, Va.
When she was younger, Hansen learned the hard way what it's like to survive without a college degree: "I used to work for my parents in the family business, selling beef jerky at motorcycle events and swap meets and boat shows, stuff like that."
She knew she could do better, so she went to a local community college in Northern Virginia and got an associate's degree in information technology. But she felt she had only been schooled on theory -- she wasn't really ready to go to work.
Hansen signed up for ITT Technical Institute, a for-profit school with a campus in Chantilly, Va., where tuition alone averages $17,000 a year. In exchange, Hansen says, she got the hands-on training she needed.
"Every class, you were in the lab, doing lab work, working with the exchange servers, configuring accounts and writing programs," she says.
Thanks to that experience, Hansen says, she felt completely confident taking on a job with the Federal Emergency Management Agency that pays about $40,000 a year to start, and has great benefits. That allows her enough cash to pay her student loan bill of $125 a month.
Hundreds of students like Hansen went to a rally in Washington, D.C., Wednesday. They went willingly, they said, but their transportation was paid for by the industry.
They listened to politicians, like Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL), rail against proposed regulations that could shut down for-profit programs whose students are not successful.
Standing on a podium erected for the event on the west lawn of the Capitol, Hastings told a crowd of students, "Private-sector colleges are instrumental to developing a world-class workforce, and serve as a talent pipeline for many of this great nation's fastest-growing employment sectors."
The problem, according to many observers, is that students can't really tell which programs are world-class and which are ripoffs.
And much of the information available right now is misleading, says Pauline Abernathy of the Institute for College Access and Success.
"The graduation rates only look at first-time, full-time students," she says. "The placement rates are also self-reported and have been found to often be inflated."
That's why Abernathy supports the proposed rules currently under consideration by the Education Department. They would create a new measure for these schools -- whether students can repay their debt. That would be a first step, Abernathy says, toward figuring out whether for-profit success stories are real, or just part of the industry's advertising campaign.