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Association Bisnow
November 29, 2007


As an association exec, when your industry’s getting beaten up in the press, you can’t put your head down, offer no comment, and hope the storm will pass.  Harris Miller, CEO of the Career College Association, says that was the old approach of his association representing the nation’s for-profit higher educators (think University of Phoenix or Strayer)—which have been painted in a less-than-flattering light by news articles and even a negative piece on 60 Minutes (hmm, is that redundant?) a few years back. 

Since coming on in February, Harris has ratcheted up the group’s communications effort, and is taking the offensive in promoting his industry, which he says is one of the “great unknown successes” in the American economy. You may remember Harris narrowly lost the 2006 Democratic primary for the US Senate seat from Virginia that went to his opponent, Jim Webb.  Early in Harris’ “typical inside the Beltway career,” he held a number of Hill jobs and served as Deputy Director for Congressional Relations at the Office of Personnel Management in the Carter administration.

Harris isn’t new to the association world—for 11 years prior to his Senate run, he was president of the Information Technology Association of America.  He and his new staff of 27 are now running a “grasstops” campaign to change the image of for-profit educators with the political, business, and media elite.  To keep up the CAA’s public profile, he has given about a dozen speeches (many at education conventions) and pens frequent op-eds, like one that appeared this week in Trusteeship magazine on how colleges should evaluate transfers of credit from for-profit institutions.  Paid media, Harris says, is the least significant aspect of the CAA’s communications strategy.

Harris and his wife, Dr. Deborah Kahn, established a scholarship fund at the University of Pittsburgh (his alma mater) that allows about five students to study abroad each year.  He also has a masters in political science from Yale, which is officially called a Master of Philosophy.  Harris says that’s just your typical elite non-profit institution being confusing for no good reason.

The CAA represents over 1,300 accredited for-profit institutions (about half the total number), as well as 200 “allied members,” which are businesses providing IT, counseling, and other services.  One of his goals, Harris says, is to build up the image of his schools to the point where even a deservedly negative piece on an individual institution doesn’t stain them all.  After all, he points out, when finance directors at certain major colleges were discovered taking payments from educational loan companies in the spring, the PR damage didn’t spread to all universities.  “If that had happened to us,” Harris says, “it would have been all over the news.”   

The ammunition in Harris’s image-makeover effort includes some impressive numbers:  like the fact that for-profit institutions are educating 2.1 million students a year, accounting for an almost 10% (and rising) share of the total higher education enrollment in the U.S.  The graduation rate of CAA institutions, Harris says, is twice that of community colleges.  Harris is also eager to point out that his member schools are adding necessary educational capacity—the Harvards and UCLAs of the world aren’t, he says—and providing skills for jobs in IT, nursing, and other areas necessary to keep the economy competitive.

One of Harris’ recent speeches was at a graduation ceremony at Coyne American Institute in Chicago.  He told the graduates they were “heroes” for the role they’re playing in keeping the U.S. economy globally competitive.

The CAA’s research is performed by outside services as well as its own Imagine America Foundation, which puts out a yearly fact book showcasing statistics such as the relatively high rate of minority enrollment in career colleges (it’s at 37%, almost double the rate at private, non-profit colleges).  The Foundation recently awarded five scholarships to veterans returning from Iraq.

Arent Fox
Reznick Group
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