Censoring College Advertising Hurts Students

Censoring College Advertising Hurts Students
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Obtaining an education beyond a high school diploma has become a prerequisite for economic advancement in the United States. While many secondary schools tailor their curricula for those seeking admittance to a four-year, liberal arts college, the demand in the job market has not kept up with the burgeoning supply of these degreed graduates.

Instead, America’s job growth has been disproportionately in skills-based fields, often requiring an education that leads to being certified or credentialed. Career colleges have stepped in to fill this need, delivering an essential service the traditional educational establishment has been unable to provide.

Since they are not direct competitors, you might think advocates for establishment colleges and universities would not concern themselves with career colleges. But disappointingly, some in the educational establishment have made it their mission to diminish — and in some cases destroy — for-profit and not-for-profit schools that are providing an advanced, skills-based education for their students.

In the first half of the last decade, career colleges became a near-obsession for the U.S. Department of Education. Employing the power of the federal government, multiple attempts were made to regulate these institutions out of existence. These efforts not only harm students who benefit from a skills-based education, they also make it harder for our nation to compete globally by exacerbating our workforce development deficit.

More recently, those working to prevent these schools from succeeding have employed a new tactic. They seek to prohibit career colleges from advertising to attract new students, preventing schools from informing prospective students of the benefits of a skills-based curriculum.

This effort would create a double-standard in advertising for advanced education institutions. Long-established — and well-endowed — colleges and universities would be able to promote the benefits of their programs, while career colleges fulfilling the needs of the fastest-growing areas of economy would be silenced.

If you think traditional colleges and universities are not advertising now, you might not own a television. Advertising for colleges and universities is on full display whenever a college sporting event is on television. Indeed, these schools even receive complimentary commercials promoting their campuses and educational offerings during games.

For some traditional universities, advertising has become the new model for rapid expansion. Consider Southern New Hampshire University, a small university with fewer than 4,000 students on campus. Through advertising its online offerings, the school has become one of the fastest-growing universities with over 90,000 enrolled. In 2018, SNHU invested $139 million in advertising. The school’s president, Paul LeBlanc credited their outreach effort with helping SNHU learn “how to be more student-centric, how to be more customer service-oriented, how to improve our processes and use data better.”

Having been in existence for decades, scores, and in some cases centuries, established traditional universities have an ample alumni base to promote their campuses and enhance their endowments. Whether private or state-supported, the college and universities with household names — reinforced in the sports pages — have achieved a “too big to fail” standing.

Things are markedly different for career colleges. Absent the cushion of a large endowment fund and the trappings of a well-manicured campus, they have to make their programs accessible to traditional and non-traditional students. Those who have already spent several years in the workforce, but now want to gain the skills necessary to improve their earning power and enhance their job security, have to make choices they can afford.

Don’t those students have a right to know about the potential opportunities of enrolling at a career college? Were it not for advertising, how would anyone know about these offerings?

According to a decision by a Colorado judge, potential students do not have the right to know. A lawsuit filed by the Attorney General of Colorado sought to punish CollegeAmerica, a private, non-profit college for having the temerity of advertising the potential benefits of its educational offerings to potential students.

CollegeAmerica’s advertising was no different from what schools promoting a traditional four-year program would employ. It focused on testimonials from its graduates and the potential of enhanced earnings after successfully completing one of its programs. But as a career college, CollegeAmerica was subjected to the bias applied to all educational institutions that are not part of the entrenched education establishment.

The necessity of a workforce with the skills necessary to succeed in fast-growing, high-demand fields becomes more urgent each year. Career colleges have the ability to meet this demand. But if the traditional educational establishment and the government continue to discriminate against these institutions, the American economy — and the students whose lives and earnings potential are improved by these schools — will suffer.    

Matthew Kandrach is President of CASE, Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, a free-market oriented consumer advocacy organization.

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