BOSTON -- To Alice Letteney, the community college she oversees 30 miles south of Albuquerque, N.M., has little in common with the big chains of profit-making schools whose radio and TV ads blanket the airwaves over much of the country.
As Letteney sees it, her mission is providing essential skills to students in Valencia County, where per capita income is two-thirds the national average. The for-profits' mission is earning money for shareholders.
Which is why Letteney and many of the community college leaders gathering in Boston for their annual convention this weekend are incensed over a proposal in Congress to create a "single definition" -- in the federal government's eyes -- of higher education institutions.
"Do you really think that the American taxpayer wants to siphon these funds to the for-profit institutions?" Letteney asked. "As a taxpayer, I would say no."
Supporters say the change would benefit students. They say the for-profit schools that more students are attending should enjoy an even playing field when it comes to federal support.
"My job as a public policy-maker is to provide access, and that access comes from a lot of different sources," Rep. John Boehner, the Ohio Republican who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, told a group of community college leaders at a meeting in Washington in February where he was peppered with hostile questions about the proposal.
But for-profits have not had access to a wide variety of other government programs such as National Science Foundation and Homeland Security grants, and some programs targeting disadvantaged students.
Now, language in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act -- expected to be taken up by Congress this year after much delay -- would lump the schools together to compete for those grants, though for-profits would still face stricter limits on how they could spend any money they were awarded.
Supporters call the proposal a recognition that for-profits are doing more of higher education's heavy lifting. According to the Career College Association, they now constitute 38 percent of the 2,500 higher education institutions where students can spend federal aid, and enroll 1.8 million of 23 million U.S. college students.
"If our institutions are doing a better job, particularly working with at risk-students, why should our students be denied the benefits of these competitive grant programs?" said Nancy Broff, the CCA's general counsel.
Community colleges say they are at a competitive disadvantage. They point to the huge marketing and lobbying budgets of the for-profits (Boehner received more than $102,000 from for-profit colleges in 2003-04, according to a database compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education).
And, they say, if for-profit colleges want to expand their programs, they should turn not to taxpayers but to their shareholders. The parent company of the University of Phoenix alone earned $278 million last year.
"We are the institutions that serve the disadvantaged, the first generation immigrants, the minorities, the refugees, and we really need those funds," said Priscilla Bell, president of Highline Community College in Des Moines, Wash., and a board member of the American Association of Community Colleges, the group meeting here. "I frankly don't want to see those funds diluted by expanding the field to for-profit institutions."
One thing both sides agree on: The change would represent a turning point in higher education policy.
"Symbolically, it's a recognition that we're not the stepchild any more, that we are an equal participant in the overall higher education universe in this country," the CCA's Broff said.