Wednesday December 12, 2012

In response to an increasing demand for bachelor's degrees, community colleges in more than a dozen states have expanded their programs to include career-oriented, four-year degrees. Advocates say these programs -- which typically require approval from state lawmakers -- better respond to student and employer needs by providing affordable bachelor's degrees.

But the programs are controversial, in part because they dramatically expand the traditional mission of these schools. Historically, community colleges have offered two-year associate's degrees, with students then transferring to other schools to earn a bachelor's degree.

The nation's largest for-profit college played a key role in defeating recent bills that would have allowed community colleges in Arizona to offer low-priced bachelor's degree programs, interviews and state records show.

The University of Phoenix, which is one of the state's biggest employers, provided research and political muscle for a multi-year lobbying campaign against "community college baccalaureate degrees" -- out of concern that those programs would undercut its business model.

For-profit schools and community colleges generally serve the same working, non-traditional student demographic, but tuition rates at community colleges are often much lower.

Beginning in 2005, the University of Phoenix lobbied Arizona state lawmakers against the degree programs, arguing that they would cost taxpayers too much money, duplicate existing programs, and "harm" the private college sector.

The company also sponsored research, circulated a letter, and published an op-ed opposing the programs.

And in a 2006 meeting with Wall Street analysts, University of Phoenix founder John Sperling publicly credited one of his top executives with "killing the community colleges' four-year degree program in Arizona."

"I'm not sure I want to be known as the woman that killed the community colleges in Arizona," responded Laura Palmer Noone, the school's former president, "but I appreciate that plug for my political ability."

The company continued its involvement through 2011, primarily as an influential member of an association of private colleges that lobbied annually against community college baccalaureate degree programs. The lobbyist for the association also serves as a lobbyist for the University of Phoenix.

The University of Phoenix's lobbying effort against community colleges appears to conflict with the public image it promotes: a partner to community colleges and an advocate for working adult students.

Indeed, the school is planning to launch more than 100 new partnerships with community colleges, which will funnel community college students into bachelor's degree programs at the University of Phoenix. These partnerships are an important part of efforts to restore the financial health and reputation of the company, executives have said.

One of the partnerships is in Arizona, where the company's lobbying has helped ensure community colleges cannot offer their own bachelor's degree programs.

In interviews, University of Phoenix spokesmen downplayed the company's involvement in the lobbying campaign.

"We look at community colleges as partners, and we understand that they play a critical role in higher education," said University of Phoenix spokesman Ryan Rauzon.

"Clearly every state budget vote is about priorities, and having community colleges offer baccalaureate degrees clearly is not a priority in Arizona right now," Rauzon said, noting that state lawmakers have repeatedly voted against the programs.

"Why not focus limited public resources on the clear mission of community colleges: to provide two-year degrees?" he added.

Rauzon confirmed that the company has funded research for the lobbying effort and that it is a member of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Arizona, the association that has recently lobbied against community college baccalaureate degrees.

But he denied that the University of Phoenix spearheaded the lobbying campaign and pointed out that a number of four-year public and private colleges were allied against near-annual legislative efforts.

However, according to several people involved in the matter, the University of Phoenix played an especially prominent role in defeating the bills.

According to Mike Gardner, a lobbyist for one Arizona community college, "The University of Phoenix ... did all the heavy lifting. They really put the squeeze on members."

Gardner added that the University of Phoenix "had a lot of clout, and they were able to kill the bill."

The American Independent is a nonprofit newsroom that funds and publishes independent investigative journalism, and can be reached at editor@americanindependent.com.