Why job-seekers pick for-profit colleges

Some career-focused students choose a for-profit college over a much cheaper community college, writes Sophie Quinton on National Journal.

In Virginia Beach, 27-year-old Darius Mitchell was “really tired of making $9 an hour.” After years working retail jobs, he consolidated previous student loans and took out more to enroll at ECPI University. He’ll graduate in May with an associate degree in network security and a job at Canon Information Technology Services.

At about $14,000 a year, tuition at ECPI is more than triple that of an in-state student at nearby Tidewater Community College. But low-income students are willing to cough up the money because programs are shorter, graduation rates are higher, and 85 percent of students move into jobs in their field of study — usually health care or technology — soon after graduation.

. . . Students are drawn here because, unlike at a community college, they can start classes every five weeks and attend on nights and weekends. Course material is also accelerated, so an associate’s degree can take just a year and a half to complete and a bachelor’s can take two and a half. Students don’t have to load up on courses to meet broad requirements; they only take classes relevant to the credential they want.

ECPI also offers job placement help. The career-services team helped Matthew Bailey, 43, find a job in tech support for InMotion Hosting. He’s working on a software development degree.

ECPI’s graduation rate of 40 percent for first-time college students is twice the graduation rate at the local community college, notes Quinton.  “In 2011, ECPI awarded more computer science associate’s degrees to African-Americans like Mitchell than all the public community colleges in Virginia combined.”

Corinthian charged with lying about job success

Corinthian Colleges lied to students and investors about its job placement rate, according to a lawsuit filed by California Attorney General Kamala Harris. The company “targeted some of our state’s most particularly vulnerable people — including low-income, single mothers and veterans returning from combat,” Harris charged.

Corinthian is one of the largest for-profit college operators in California, notes the Bay Area News Group. 

Two of Corinthian’s schools — Everest College campuses in Hayward and San Francisco — went so far as to pay a temporary agency to hire graduates for two days to boost job placement numbers, the suit alleges. Others double-counted gainfully employed grads or fabricated them altogether, it says.

. . . Corinthian responded in a statement that it was proud of the education at its colleges and that it has “robust processes in place to correctly record and disclose the job placement information we receive from our graduates and their employers.

According to the lawsuit, the Department of Justice discovered internal documents in which Corinthian describes its target demographic as “isolated,” “impatient” individuals with “low self-esteem” who have “few people in their lives who care about them” and who are “stuck” and “unable to see and plan well for the future.”

Vada Pinson earned an associate degree in business administration at Heald College in Hayward. He’s still trying to pay off  $30,000 in loans, he told the Bay Area News Group. The degree didn’t help, Pinson says. Heald promised to help him find a job but didn’t call with a single job referral.

Community colleges must adapt or die

If community colleges cling to the “mini-university model,” they’ll fail, warns Bruce Leslie, chancellor of the Alamo Colleges in San Antonio, in the Huffington Post.

Community colleges serve almost half of higher education’s students today but face funding cuts, cost-sensitive customers and aggressive competitors, writes Leslie. Community colleges’ image is confusing and overly broad. The sector’s “traditions make any change ponderously slow.”

Meanwhile, for-profit colleges are competing for students. Key strategies include :

Customer Focus – in all things
Agile – able to respond quickly to the market
Placement – graduates matched to the market
Focus – niche driven to maximize enrollments and revenues
Marketing – sophisticated, continuous
Personal Service – the student/customer feels welcomed
Student Financial support – no lines, easy payment
Collective Mission – all employees focused on the customer
Scheduling – meets customers’ needs, not employees
Access – delivers where and when customer requires
Performance based – outcomes defined, applied/contextual learning with measured results
Streamlined – minimal credit hours to achieve certification

Community colleges need to adapt or die, writes Leslie. “We must stop functioning like mini-universities and fulfill the founding promise of a student centered, market responsive, academically innovative organization.”

‘BA blinders’ create barriers to success

Old ideas about higher education are keeping completion rates low at community colleges argues Removing the BA Blinders: Reconceiving Community College Procedures to Improve Student Success, part of The Changing Ecology of Higher Education from Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis.

Outdated norms — “all students should pursue a BA degree, take four years of full-time courses, expect no interim credentials or payoffs, explore only academic fields (labeled “general education”), and require minimal formal guidance” — pose “serious barriers to nontraditional students, write James Rosenbaum, Janet Rosenbaum and Jennifer Stephan.

 In our interviews, community college students report a wide variety of mistakes in college. They take many courses without credits, they receive many credits that do not count toward credentials, they face predictable delays without receiving warning about them, and they receive credentials that have no job payoffs.

Many reformers have BA blinders. They devote great energy to transforming low-achieving students into traditional students by imposing massive amounts of remedial coursework. This BA-centric approach has failed consistently—sometimes with failure rates as high as 83% in national studies, for students placed in the lowest level of remedial coursework.

The researchers compared six community colleges with two for-profit career colleges. The career colleges had a much higher success rate: 57 percent vs 37 percent. For blacks, the difference was striking:  While only 19 perent of blacks in community college completed a credential, 64 percent completed at private career colleges.

“Students at private occupational colleges are nearly identical to public community college students in terms of prior test scores, grades, and socioeconomic status,” according to federal data, the researchers point out.

Private career colleges help students earn vocational certificates quickly en route to an associate degree. If they quit after the first certificate, they’ve improved their employment prospects. It’s often a bachelor’s or nothing — usually nothing — for community college students.

In traditional community colleges, students go through a “fail-first” process in which 42% drop out in the first year, 50% of them return, and 53% of them drop out again. In interviews, counselors report that they do not mention their occupational programs to young students (ages 18 to 24). Students are only told about these options if they are returning dropouts or older than age 24.

Since it’s assumed all students should go for a bachelor’s degree, community colleges place students in remedial courses to acquire college-level academic skills and urge first-year students to take a smattering of general education courses. Many students could skip remediation if they were urged to take vocational courses, the report finds. “In our interviews with 48 occupational faculty, most reported that computer networking technicians, medical technicians, and accounting staff only need eighth- to tenth-grade math skills.”

Career colleges structure programs, telling students exactly what to take, require advising, monitor students’ progress carefully and provide job placement services, researchers found. In community colleges, students are on their own — unless they have college-savvy parents who can guide them.

The report recommends seven ways to improve completion:

1. Offer opportunities for quick successes

2. Offer opportunities for quick payoffs

3. Avoid or delay obstacles that prevent success

4. Develop degree ladders

5. Provide structured program pathways with courses in predictable time slots

6. Provide “guardrails” that help guide student progress

7. Emphasize job placement

Many students want a bachelor’s degree because they’ve been told it’s the only path to success.  The portion of incoming freshmen that cited  “to be able to get a better job” as a very important reason for attending college reached an all-time high of 87.9 percent in 2012, reports UCLA’s annual survey of new students at four-year colleges and universities. There are many realistic options for career-minded students with little chance of completing a bachelor’s degree but a fighting shot at a pharmacy tech certificate or an associate degree in computer networking.

Disabled students need help with college, jobs

Disabled students need more help transitioning to college and jobs, concludes a Government Accountability Office report. Students can apply for tutoring, job training and assistive technology help, but there’s little coordination between federal departments of Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, and the Social Security Administration, said the GAO. Once they leave high school, “it’s easy for these same young people to flounder in a maze of bureaucracy,” reports Ed Week.

Texas is helping disabled students navigate college and employment, report AP.

McALLEN, Texas (AP) — When Gabriel Rios began classes at South Texas College last month, he was dealing with worries beyond those that confront most incoming college freshmen.

Rios, an 18-year-old student who is deaf, was nervous about the college-level curriculum and advanced reading and writing levels he’ll need when he pursues a certificate in auto mechanics. But Rios knows older friends who are deaf have struggled adjusting to college, a challenge that puts college graduation rates for deaf individuals far below the national average.

But Rios is among a dozen students with disabilities who will receive the support services they need at STC through a five-year program designed to help them graduate and later secure employment.

Project HIRE — or Helping Individuals Reach Employment — will provide 50 Texas high school students with college and career coaches who will provide an array of services, including on-campus counseling, life skills training and job placement.

Project HIRE is helping South Texas College evaluate and improve services for students with disabilities, said Paul Hernandez, the college’s dean of student support services. Currently, the college offers lecture notes, sign language interpretation and extended time for tests to 300 students who’ve self-identified as disabled.

Community college rankings: How useful?

Use Caution When Ranking Community Colleges writes Mandy Zatynski on The Quick and the Ed.  Community colleges have very different missions and attract different kinds of students.

College Measures’ success ratings are based on the percentage of full-time, first-time students who graduated or transferred in three years.  That leaves out the majority (59 percent) of students who attend part-time, Zatynski points out.

Can graduates get a job after they graduate? Do low-income or minority students perform at the same levels as their peers? Job attainment and equitable outcomes are some of the indicators considered for the Aspen Prize in Community College Excellence, which seeks to highlight stellar two-year institutions that are outpacing their counterparts across the nation.

But how, then, to appropriately identify poor-performing programs? The American Association of Community Colleges has taken a step toward this by instituting a Voluntary Framework of Accountability, which asks colleges to publicly report student progress and outcomes measures. So far, 72 community colleges have signed on, but that’s just 6 percent of the nation’s total.

Of course, for most community college students the key factor is location, location, location, Zatynski concludes.

I’d add that looking at success rates for the average student doesn’t tell much about whether any individual will succeed or fail. Motivated, hard-working and college-ready students will beat the averages.

Tech colleges to link funding, job placement

Job training is job one in the Texas State Technical College System, which is working on a “returned-value” model that would link all college funding to graduates’ employment and earnings, reports the Texas Tribune.

. . . administrators at TSTC, a network of public two-year institutions that provide technical training, . . .  are working with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to develop a model that bases the system’s entire state funding amount on the job placements and projected earnings of graduates.

“You won’t find a better example of total accountability, because we won’t get paid for a student until we put him in a job,” said TSTC Chancellor Michael Reeser.

However, it’s not clear the state has the accurate job data needed to make the model work.

The board is looking for ways to link university and community college funding to student outcomes, but is not likely to use “returned value,” the Tribune reports.

Public colleges and universities should be willing to link funding to student learning, writes Thomas Lindsay on Phi Beta Cons.

Academically Adrift . . . reports that 45 percent of students showed “little if any growth over the first two years of college in their ability to perform tasks requiring critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA).” After four years in college, more than one in three continued to show “little if any growth.”

The CLA or the comparable Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency (CAAP) could be used to measure whether students have learned anything, Lindsay proposes.

Affordability and transparency

The U.S. Education Department’s new College Affordability and Transparency Center lets prospective students research expensive and low-cost alternatives in all higher education sectors.

For example, here’s a list of public two-year colleges with the highest tuition. Quite a few are in New Hampshire. The cheapest community colleges are all in California.

Starting tomorrow, career and vocational colleges will have to inform prospective students about tuition, fees and typical costs of books and fees, graduates’ median loan debt, the on-time graduation rate, the job placement rate and the occupations the program prepares students to enter.

Colleges and universities will be required to provide students with a net price calculator by late October. The calculator will estimate the actual costs of attendance, taking grants and scholarship aid into account, based on the family’s income.