While programs at public colleges may cost less, they are not without challenges. A lawsuit against Virginia Western Community College alleges the school defrauded students when it failed to tell them that its nursing program had lost its national accreditation.
Some John Tyler Community College students also are considering a suit after the college discontinued a surgical-tech program that failed to gain national accreditation. Kraus said he could not comment on either case.
Brian Moran, interim president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, defends the higher costs charged by for-profit institutions as justifiable and understandable. His association, which represents the industry, has filed suit against the Education Department challenging new rules intended to protect students.
Moran, who is also chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party, said community colleges and other public schools can charge less than for-profits because they are heavily subsidized by taxpayers.
"The actual cost is very competitive. It's the price that is different because of the taxpayer subsidy," he said. "The for-profit college not only does not receive subsidies but it pays taxes."
But others see an industry that exploits low-income students and is itself supported by taxpayer-financed loan programs. The suit against RSHT, filed in Washington by a civil-rights law firm, alleges the school practices a form of "reverse redlining" targeting African-Americans whose credit ratings are ruined when they cannot repay their loans.
Nationally, about 1.6 million students -- some estimates put the number at nearly 2 million -- attend for-profit institutions of higher education. Federal financial aid for these schools totaled about $24 billion for the 2008-09 academic year. For many schools, the loans account for 90 percent of revenue, the maximum allowed by Congress.
A study this month by the Institute for Higher Education Policy found for-profit schools disproportionately attract low-income students, especially females. According to the study, low-income students between the ages of 18 and 26 are likely to be overrepresented at for-profit institutions and underrepresented at public and private nonprofit four-year institutions.
The study says that from 2000 to 2008, the percentage of low-income students enrolling at for-profits increased from 13 to 19 percent, while the percentage enrolling in public four-year institutions declined from 20 to 15 percent.
But Moran says the schools typically attract older students seeking flexible schedules and marketable skills. They are "interested in the degree as opposed to the various and sundry other activities" that draw younger students to traditional colleges, he said.
Moran said the schools' extensive marketing is necessary. "We don't have decades and in some cases centuries of existing," he said, "and we don't have the wonderful sports teams like Virginia Tech and U.Va." to attract students.
* * * * *
Last year, about 10,000 people earned certificates, diplomas or degrees from for-profit institutions certified to operate by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. But that does not include for-profits offering degrees online that do not have a physical presence in Virginia. Nor does it include for-profits that are exempt from certification.
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