Buyers must be wary of for-profit colleges

One of our college presidents recently shared a very persuasive article about for-profit colleges entitled, “The Insiders View of For-profit Colleges, Race, Class and Education Justice."  The author of the article, Tressie McMillan Cottom, shares her experiences working with a for-profit higher education institution and her concerns over the use of strong-arm tactics to get students, especially the disadvantaged and minority students, to enroll at these colleges.

Cottom writes that the for-profit colleges prey on the desperate and disadvantaged by “selling” them $30,000 associate degrees at a time when they are most vulnerable.  She argues, “For too long traditional colleges have failed these same students through silence and inaction.”  She makes a valid argument, one that prompts this blog entry.

For-profit institutions serve a legitimate purpose, especially given the demand placed on career programs in public colleges and universities.  Prospective students, however, must understand that these for-profit colleges popping up all over town are exactly that – for profit. They are corporations driven by large profits, with extremely large advertising budgets and aggressive marketing tactics to lure in customers.

The U.S. Government appears concerned about the booming for-profit institutions and whether they are delivering on promises to educate students.  “The plain fact is that millions of low-income students are borrowing heavily to attend for-profit [colleges] and too many of them are dropping out, failing to get a job,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.  Sadly, students are still obligated to pay back loans that don’t result in much of anything, while taxpayer-funded grants are never recovered.

A recent government undercover investigation showed a failure to properly educate students at for-profit colleges.  Even more obvious from the investigation is that the for-profit colleges are more interested in making profits than educating students.  The government is taking steps to require that the providers of short-term vocational programs (community and technical colleges included) ensure “gainful employment in a recognized occupation,” is achieved.

The “gainful employment” measure, imposed on both public and for-profit institutions is aimed at keeping many for-profit institutions in check, but the results won’t be immediate.  Institutions that do not meet certain requirements won’t be penalized with the loss of federal financial aid until at least 2015.

Meanwhile, many students and graduates of for-profit programs have to deal with issues of institutional integrity.  Students wishing to transfer out of these schools quickly discover the challenges in doing so.  Accreditation generally differs between the for-profits and other institutions, which can make credits ineligible for transfer.  Very often, other colleges will not recognize credits earned at the for-profit institutions.  Also, employers may question the integrity of degrees from for-profit institutions.  This can be especially true in cases of healthcare-related programs, where clinicals (health care field training) are normally required but may not be part of the for-profit programs.

Regardless of where you are planning to attend college, ask questions, beginning with whether the school is accredited and by whom?  The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) provides an online search of accredited colleges and universities. (The North Central Association of Colleges and Schools Higher Learning Commission (NCA-HLC) is the accreditation body for most postsecondary institutions in Wisconsin.)  Individuals should also ask how much it costs to complete the degree and how long it takes the college’s students to complete the degree.  What is the job placement rate of graduates?  Finally, ask what the loan default rate is for graduates.  Also, if you’re considering a career in health care, ask how well graduates do in board and other certification exams.

Not all for-profits are purely profit driven.  Many do place student success before profits, but it’s difficult to get a handle on the priorities of your prospective college unless you do some research.  Sure, it will take a little work, but it will be an effort that can provide confidence that your hard work and money spent will pay off in establishing your career.

Visit witechcolleges.org for more information on Wisconsin's Technical Colleges.