A few months ago, Dawn Connor was just another college student, attending night courses to become a veterinary technician and practicing her trade by spaying and neutering dogs and cats from a local shelter.
These days, the 33-year-old from Eau Claire, Wis., is shaking hands on Capitol Hill and speaking at news conferences in Las Vegas, the new public face of the satisfied for-profit college student.
Standing closely behind her is the Career College Association, a lobbying group for for-profit schools that provided the organizational muscle to launch the grassroots-sounding Students for Academic Choice at a time when for-profit colleges are under fire.
The Career College Association helped the students establish a website, draft bylaws and set up an online election that resulted in Connor being elected the group's president — all at a time when for-profit colleges are intensifying lobbying efforts against tougher federal regulations expected to be proposed in the coming days.
"I'm skeptical of the organic nature of the group given that it is completely towing the association's line," said Christine Lindstrom, higher education program director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
Harris Miller, president of the Career College Association, said his group extended a helping hand to busy nontraditional students who otherwise wouldn't have a voice — and says the new group stands on its own.
"This will be, I think, as this organization grows and gets legs, an effective antidote to those people who hang on a few disgruntled students or former students and somehow think it's typical of the student reality," Miller said.
Although for-profit schools are the fastest growing sector of higher education, there's been little organizing by students themselves. When a voice is heard, it's usually a dissatisfied former student or graduate describing dubious recruitment practices, staggering debt or training that left them ill-prepared to pay it off.
That has long irritated for-profit school officials. But no student counter message has emerged until now, a sensitive time for for-profit colleges.
Last week, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, announced plans to hold hearings starting June 24 to examine federal education spending at for-profit colleges.
And in the coming days, the Education Department is expected to propose new regulations that could, among other things, cut off federal aid to vocational programs whose graduates don't earn enough to pay of their student loans.
Studies show for-profit students are much more likely than other students to default on their loans, and the government is paying closer attention because of the huge amounts of federal aid students take to the schools.
For-profit schools are lobbying hard against the so-called "gainful employment" proposal, which would also apply to community colleges but don't pose a threat to them because their tuition is low.
Fighting the regulations is the first cause of Students for Academic Choice, which gathered 32,000 signatures on an online petition opposing the rules to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Miller said it's been hard for students in the sector to get involved politically because so many of them balance school, work and families. Other college student associations, he said, are funded in large part by their universities and colleges, and their student leaders are given time off by their schools to take part in activities.
Miller said students from the sector have long wanted to get more involved. He said a group of students attending the association's annual Hill Day lobbying event this spring got together and asked whether they could get support from the association to put together a formal student organization.
Connor, however, said the idea originated not with students but representatives of for-profits schools, including faculty, who approached students during the event to gauge their interest.
The Career College Association is "the grandfather for us," Connor said in a phone interview from Las Vegas, where the student group was introduced at the association's annual convention that ended Friday. "They kind of got us going. But now they're taking the training wheels off and saying, 'Go for it and let's see what you guys can do.'"
Connor was a collegiate drifter. She said she graduated early from high school and enrolled at three different nonprofit colleges, changing majors a few times without earning a degree.
Then she found the Eau Claire campus of for-profit Globe University, which offered a flexible schedule that allowed her to attend class at night while she worked full-time in a health care job.
It wasn't cheap. Tuition to complete a two-year associate's degree in veterinary technology at Globe runs $44,820, and lab fees and books are extra. Connor said it cost her less because she had transfer credits.
Even so, she said the state-of-the-art surgical suites and small classes is worth the extra expense.
Her experience was so good, she raised her hand when the university's government affairs liaison sent an e-mail looking for students to represent the school at the Career College Association's Hill Day in March in Washington.
When the new student group began taking shape, she said she became the "annoying girl who was e-mailing everyone" to win an election determined by the votes of 150 students and alumni.
Connor said that while she understands the government's desire to protect students from being buried in debt, the gainful employment proposal would restrict student choices without data to back it up.
Career college officials argue the proposal would shutter job-training programs while doing nothing to fix the debt problem, and propose giving students more information as an alternative solution.
While longer-term goals are a work in progress, Connor said one is to provide a support system for students. For now, the executive team is Connor and two other students.
Not everyone is impressed. Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access & Success, calls Students for Academic Choice "an industry-sponsored group." Asher criticized its website, which features little more than the petition, "as not giving folks who come to it any information about what's sponsoring it or what's really at stake."
At the same time, for-profit college students don't really have a home in established groups. The United States Student Association, billed as the country's largest student-led organization, has no for-profit college student members.
Legislative director Angela Peoples said the association hopes to change that and will reach out to the new group. She welcomed the new voice, but also said it's needed because for-profit students don't get a say as student trustees or in the tuition-setting process like students at traditional schools do.
Supporters of the gainful employment proposal say for-profit college programs can avoid closure simply by cutting their tuition and improving their product. What student, they wonder, wouldn't go for that?
"The for-profit sector is basically subsidized by federal loans," said Kevin Kinser, an associate professor at the State University of New York at Albany who studies for-profit colleges. "So there's an important interest that we're subsidizing students but not the for-profits themselves."
Connor said lower tuition "would be great. In the real world, that would be great if we could lower the price for everything. But that's just not an option at this point in time. That's not the point we're trying to get to right now."