Tuesday, September 8, 2009

College shouldn't be for-profit... except for students

I'm going to link to this article about a for-profit online college not because I agree with it (I don't), but because I want to give you a different, shall we say more practical, perspective. I think what he's writing is dangerous for students, because it's directing them to a prospect that probably won't pan out. If you have friends or young relatives who are thinking of alternative higher education, please have them think it through and really investigate the situation, and start NOT with for-profit but their own state schools.

There are plenty of reasons that prospective students might have to look beyond the traditional four-year public or private college. Maybe you live in a rural area. Maybe you screwed up in high school and barely graduated, or just have a GED. (Many soon-to-be great students, btw, weren't great successes in high school.) This is why most states have extensive community college systems, to provide an alternative track to education.

I'm a community college teacher (I also teach at a 4-year college, and I've taught at both state and private schools), and I know this: You can get a 2-year degree or two years of college, fully transferrable, fully accreditable, at most state community colleges, no funny stuff needed, for about $3000 a year (and most students qualify for federal and/or state aid, which makes it cheaper). You can take that $6000 first two years of college to most of the state's 4-years colleges and get full credit, and you'll pay more for the last 2 years, but you will still get a 4-year degree accepted as a real degree at any graduate school, the military, and any employer.

And most students don't need to go far for either in-person or online education. Most states have a community college system with transferrable credits and many, many campuses. (My own in a medium-sized state has 23 campuses.) And you can also take many of the lower-level (freshman) courses, the required ones, online either at a community college or a big state school (University of Maryland has a very extensive online system, used by many in the military-- full disclosure here-- I tutor online in their writing center). It's cheaper, of course, if you take the courses in the state where you reside (much cheaper). But there is extensive financial aid available, and extensive advice on all this, at the colleges themselves.

And when you finish, you have actual credits. I don't know if you get a great education-- though I teach online, I'm the first to say that in-person classes can be better -- but then, I think you can get a great education online at Podunk Comm College or a terrible education in-person at Harvard. It depends very much on the student's desire and willingness to work hard. I just hate to see those virtues exploited as they traditionally have been by the for-profit college education companies (I don't know if this one in the article is exploitative, but the history of the industry makes me pessimistic). Yes, non-profit colleges also engage in chicanery (I think they often make freshman classes onerous so that students will pay tuition and then drop out), but at least, if you persist, the degree is worth something. (I'm a firm believer that the purpose of all this is knowledge, wisdom, all that good stuff, but you know, my students aren't wrong to think that there should be a more pecuniary reward too. And, uh, I know from experience-- the only way they can be charging only $99 a class is by trimming teacher-student interaction to the barest minimum, which means probably there's not a lot of wisdom-transmission going on.)

The only profit that can be made from selling college education, I fear, comes by ripping off students in some way. Education isn't a profitable pursuit. It's not supposed to be, and it never has been, and it never will be.

If you know a prospective student who is unsure of how best to return to college, please suggest that he/she call the state community college and ask to speak to an admissions advisor. (They can email me, too-- arasley@ivytech.edu.) Most comm. colleges accept GED-- in fact, most have classes preparing you for that test-- and also help you get CLEP credit (which gets you college credit for life and occupational experience). And the advising is free, and so is the help to get financial aid. Every community college has had many thousands of students and the staff and faculty have a lot of experience working with non-traditional and returning students.

I just never want to talk to another despairing student like the young man I met last month. He'd taken 4 classes at a for-profit school. He was the first in his family to go to college and didn't have a lot of knowledge about it. He paid $4K, most of it financed by student loans. The courses couldn't be transferred. He never got the cushy job they'd suggested he would get, and he ended up defaulting on his loans... which means that he can't get any more student loans when he goes to an accredited school. He was so sad. And he felt betrayed, because here he'd tried hard to raise himself, to challenge himself, and someone exploited this to rip him off. He thought it was his own fault.

Say what you will about state universities and their monopolies and all that, and the terrible tuition increases every year (very little of which, btw, goes to teachers :). But the non-profit colleges and universities are filled with dedicated faculty and staff members. And they aren't in it to get a profit. Few of us would be working for such low pay if we didn't love students and want to help them. :)

Alicia

17 comments:

Wes said...

I concur with Alicia. This summer I was invited to interview for a management position at a proprietary school (read "for profit"). When I left I felt oily. Their primary program racked up $70,000 in debts for a $35,000 job. There is a place for proprietary schools in my opinion, but that is in the trades where a relatively short program can prepare a student to make real money as an electrican, plumber, machinist, etc.

The issue of transferring credits is very important.

I'm still an academic at heart even though I've been in business for 20 years. I love higher education and taught at major universities for 12 years, not counting being a TA in grad school. But students and parents need to look at the return on investment. Academics like to belittle that position, but it's a valid concern.

Traditional universities are not without their greedy flaws though. One is having large graduate programs in fields with little demand so the school will have plenty of cheap Ph.D. candidates to teach undergrad courses.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Wes. Yeah, I do see a place for short, intensive training in some fields (particularly certain healthcare fields), and in my experience those tend to be accepted by hospitals (but most of the applicants still have to pass some certification exam). These courses cost much more than $99 a course. And sometimes if you drop out, you lose it all.
And most comm colleges do have many of these training courses, for a whole lot less. Mine, for example, trains a lot of CNAs (nurse assistants) for that same $3K a year.
A

Mystery Robin said...

Very true. My husband got his GED, then went to a community college, and ended up graduating from the UW. It was a very hard road, as he was 1 PE unit short of a direct transfer and didn't realize that, and had to petition over and over and over to get in, but he finally did get into the 4 year school, graduated in 3 years total and is supporting the family so I can write and watch the babes now.

There were tons of people willing to help him along the way, because education is a wonderful thing and colleges are wonderful places.

Teresa said...

Alicia,

As someone who works in a community college, I want to say THANK YOU! I love working at a community college and all the great people that come here are what makes my job so great.

I'm looking to transfer to a four-year university soon, but I can't advocate the community college system enough.

Teresa

Jami G. said...

Well, I don't know if you'd call this a dissenting opinion or not, but... :)

I agree that community colleges have a great deal to offer, and the idea of saving money by going for 2 years and then transferring usually works great, etc. However, I also don't see any problem with the approach offered by the school in the article. The woman profiled in the article was exactly the type of person that the method works for - someone with lots of self-initiative and can use the curriculum to teach themselves. Yes, there isn't going to be a lot of teacher-interaction, but if the curriculum is good (which the point about it being the same as her daughter's curriculum seems to indicate it is), then a person who is motivated can teach themselves. Is it right for everyone? Absolutely, positively, not! But for some it will work.

I'm a big believer in educational choice, so I won't knock something just because it wouldn't work for me. Everyone has different learning styles. So I say the more choices the better.

However, before signing up for something like this, the student should know all the pros and cons, all their other options, be certain of their own motivation and self-initiative, etc. If they have that knowledge and still think this is the best choice for them, then more power to them.

My concerns would be whether or not the for-profit place is legit (will still be around next semester) and whether or not their advertising/marketing clearly indicates those pros/cons. I know of a for-profit K-12 online school that has excellent curriculum and clearly lists out the expectations of the student ("Would this work for you?").

In other words, I don't have a problem with the for-profit aspect, the online aspect, or their general methodology. I'd just want to make sure that people are getting what they expect.

Jami G.

Anonymous said...

MR, yes, it's a life-changer for so many.
Teresa, yes, as I said, I taught at a pretty elite private college, and enjoyed that (actual ivy-covered walls :). But there's nothing like knowing that you have made a measurable effect (positive) on someone's life, given him/her encouragement and skills. I just more people knew about the community colleges!

Jami, what if what happens is-- she takes the degree to her employer and it isn't recognized because it's not accredited? See, if the schools were really honest about that (and most are NOT), then I'd shrug and say any education is good.
I am a bigger believer in lifelong, non-credit education than almost anyone. But I think most young people want more than the courses. I think they want the credit too. And it might not be fair that these schools don't get accredited (I can see both sides), but it's profoundly unfair if students are not told what is likely in the future. (And I don't think they are.)

And we all end up paying for the defaulted student loans.

But I do think online education is the wave of the future. I just hope that students start looking at the options at their local community college. There is truly nothing new about this guy's approach-- I've been teaching online for years now, through the community college and Maryland, and really, I'm not sure why this is considered novel just because someone's figured out how to make money off it (if he has... I really don't know how anyone makes a profit at this).

Just as long as everyone knows that there's a low-cost option that is fully accredited and non-profit, and will likely be here in a few years. I've seen a lot of these for-profit schools come and go, because, well, as I said, there's not much profit to be made, especially when the government cuts off the loans (as often happens if they think there's chicanery involved).
Alicia

Jami G. said...

Alicia,

There's so many accreditation groups out there now, that in my mind, accreditation isn't what it used to be. :) And the chicanery involved with those groups is an entirely different topic. :) Accreditation is one of those "eye of the beholder" things now. One school might recognize the credits, another might not. If you keep shopping your credits around, you'll probably eventually find a school willing to accept them if only to take your money. Besides, if other schools shut them out, the legit schools of this model that survive will eventually start offering the full degree's worth of classes so no transferring is necessary.

I see this as similar to the homeschooling movement because they've often faced the accreditation issue ("What do you mean, your mother printed up your high school transcript?"). But over time, the results have shown that for kids that it works for, it works really well. Colleges and the military all accept them (and in many cases, market specifically to them), whereas 10 years ago, homeschoolers were shut out.

It's probably just a matter of time for a similar level of acceptance for the legit schools here. The main issue is determining their legitimacy. If there isn't already, there will soon be an accreditation board specifically for for-profit online schools.

I do completely agree, however, that any schools need to be honest and upfront about the issues of transferring and accreditation. The legit ones will. Again, I think this works if the schools are forthright with the pros and cons and ensure that the students expectations are in line with reality.

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

I just have to wonder how much they're paying their instructors. I didn't think pay could get any lower than what adjuncts at state schools get paid, but at $99 a class... well, if you learn how much they pay per section, let me know!

I have a friend who teaches online at one of these profit- schools, and she gets paid per student who finishes the course, but most don't finish. (That's true in community college too, but the instructor gets paid a set amount no matter what.) Not that how much we get paid is the most important thing. (g)
A

Jami G. said...

Alicia,

A family friend that's a K-6 online teacher started 3 years ago after being in a brick & mortar school. I don't think she gets as much enjoyment out of the experience (you know Kindergarten teachers have got to be a special breed :) ), but she can work from home. I think that's a big part of it for her because she has a new baby. But I've never asked her how much she makes compared to before. :)

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

That is the benefit of teaching online-- flexible hours. :)
A

Murphy said...

Okay, for me? I understand the teacher end of things. I really understand the money end of things.;D And yes, money down the tubes, is a shame, but thankfully, it can be recovered. The real loss here, is the experience for the student. Are we treating the opportunity of a higher education like everything else in America? Have we reduced it to fast food. Cheaper, faster - but sufficient? I don't like that. For me, I understand that there are certain needs for certain people. The tech or trade schools - the community college for specifics, or a stop by before university - I can see. So, where am I going with this thought? Well, with my kids, I told both of them that university wasn't going to teach them anything, definitively. Speaking from personal experience, university taught me to think, reason, make decisions, manage time and deadlines (hey! personal responsibility) So, my guys were well aware, before they got there, that this was their chance to function in a protected, cerebral society that was like a small scale city and that they’d have the time to work through this small scale of life, before they went out into the real world and had to do it for real. And that’s the experience that, I think, is being sold-out now. BUT, our kids are smart. Some may be duped, but not all. And it’s up to the individual parent to remain vigilant with their children and to understand that education is only as good as you make it.
Murphy

Jami G. said...

Murphy,

Yes, I definitely understand where you're coming from. I didn't end up in the field of my degree, so the courses themselves didn't matter in the long run. However, the experience was one that I wouldn't give up just to save money. And I went to one of the biggest undergrad state schools in the country, 600 students in one class and everything. But I managed to get something out of it because I wanted to.

And I think that's really the point here. Education is less about a teacher cramming something down their students thoughts (not saying that any professors we know do this *waving to Alicia*), and more about a student choosing to take everything they can from the experience - in and out of class.

So, the issue is just what kind of experience each person wants to get from college. Traditional schools won't go away, because many people will always want that traditional experience. I specifically chose a school that had a very defined campus as opposed to buildings spread throughout a city because that was the experience I wanted. But other people might want something else.

Jami G.

Anonymous said...

@Mruphy, well said.

Edittorrent said...

I do feel sorry for kids who don't get the traditional experience-- the ivy-covered walls, the parties. I had that, and it was great. I also had terrific teachers (didn't know how terrific till I became one myself and wasn't so terrific), and felt like (of course, I majored in English Lit) I really did connect with the wisdom of the ages.

But I don't think that such an experience is available now except at a huge price (I went to two small liberal arts schools, and now they're each about $40K a year tuition). And while the partying is available for all, I don't know that very many students get as much out of the classes. (Of course, it takes only one great class to make them know how great gaining knowledge is. :)

I think there should be different routes because there are different students and different needs. That's kind of why I really support community college as a two-year option. Very cheaply you can fix the mistakes of the past (dropping out of high school, for example), get yourself into student mode, and get those damned requirements out of the way. Then you can go to a more trad 4-year college for the rest of the journey, and have the parties and the ivy and the classes (in your major!), but when you are more likely actually to appreciate them.

My older boy went that route, and I think the, um, less fun aspects of community college taught him that he wanted to succeed at a traditional school (and he has).

This is a big enough and rich enough country that we can have a lot of different options, and second and third and fourth chances. The students from poorer backgrounds are the ones who most need more chances (and often aren't given them), and I have kind of decided that I'm going to be one of those that gives another chance. (Yes, so I give extensions when a paper is late... what a wuss. But rich kids have always been given extra chances. Why not be democratic here? :)

Alicia

Jami G. said...

Alicia,

I don't know about your community college, but one near where I live has the dorms and the sports programs, etc. I was very surprised when I found that out as the community colleges near where I grew up didn't have anything like that. So, there are even some community colleges that can give at least a taste of college life.

Jami G.

Wes said...

Alicia,

Students do need breaks on occasion. Last year my daughter had terrible headaches from a blood clot in her brain and she flunked French and calc. I had a system of one day's grace on deadlines for papers, then they lost a letter grade for every additional late day, unless they were facing a real emergency.

I believe American students have more options and opportunities than Euruopeans and others. Admittedly, it's been a while since I studied (what a joke) in Europe, but then if a kid didn't get into into university from secondary ed, they were stuck with little way to advance educationally.

It's tough to know how to handle students. Some are under great pressure. Just look at the suicide rates in college, and others are total *&^%-offs, like I was as an undergrad. There's a good reason I graduated by 0.02 after four and half years.

Edittorrent said...

No, my community college has no dorms. How cool! I once gave a lecture at a cc in Portland that was just like a small college-- beautiful campus, dorms, the whole college thing. It was interesting.

Wes, see, I hope your daughter is recovered! And I hope she can re-take those classes. It's got to be especially hard to face that, doing the classes over, but after what she's overcome, I bet that'll be the easy part.