Losing Big at For-Profit Schools

May 22, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

Aida Ahmed
aahmed@smu.edu

At a time when the job search can yield no real promise, more students are heading back to the classroom.

A growing number of them are enrolling in trade schools that focus on information technology, health care and paralegal work. But these for-profit colleges can cost thousands more than traditional community colleges and even public universities. The difference is that for-profit schools exist to generate a profit for the school’s owners and investors.

Some for-profit schools, like ITT Technical Institute, promise students hands-on training and unrealistic job offers upon graduation, but fail to mention the thousands of dollars of debt students will face- along with very slim prospects of a job.

Many find that the only thing worse than graduating with a huge pile of debt is graduating without a solid degree. That’s what happened to Juli Quinteros de Hernandez.

“I graduated in 2006 with a degree in multimedia with the highest honors,” Hernandez said.

But when it came time to look for a job, her career services representative recommended her for a part-time job as a document scanner for a company that digitizes medical records. The pay was about $8 an hour.

“They didn’t spend much time trying to get me a job in my field,” Hernandez said. “I knew when I graduated that I would have to continue school.”

She said she was either under qualified for positions in multimedia or over qualified for other jobs. And six months after graduation she began receiving letters to start paying $38,000 for the loans she took out.

“It wasn’t worth the money I paid to go there,” Hernandez said.

ITT is one of the leading for-profit colleges in the country. With over 100 campuses nationwide and three locations in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area alone, their Web site claims they enroll approximately 70,000 students. The school is accredited by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools and offers several bachelor’s degrees in information technology and electronics technology.

Similar training can be found at some Dallas County community colleges that cost thousands less, but many students still choose ITT. The cost of one credit hour at a DCCC is $41. At ITT it’s $493. The difference in an associate’s degree from the two schools would be over $45,000.

A current student at the Richardson ITT campus, 24-year-old Joseph Rivera, is studying computer network systems in his first year and says he chose ITT for their school of information technology.

“ITT shows you more hands-on experience in specific areas,” Rivera said. “I think in the field of computer networks it is better to go to technical school than a university.”

Rivera was in the military for four years and says the post 9/11 GI Bill pays for his schooling. After graduating from ITT, he hopes to work for the FBI or the CIA.

Michael Doty, Director of Career Services at the University of Texas at Dallas, thinks students like Rivera should go to a vocational school if they want to go into a specific trade.

“It really depends on what the student is looking for,” said Doty. “There’s going to be a difference in what a vocational school can teach and an academic school can teach. Academic schools can offer a broader, rounding set of skills. Vocational schools are not training you to go onto college.”

Assistant Professor of Higher Education Administration at Texas A&M University and co-editor of the book, “For-Profit Colleges and Universities: Their Markets, Regulation, Performance and Place in Higher Education,” Vicente Lechuga, says that there are many benefits to the for-profit college system.

“Students are able to finish their programs very quickly,” said Lechuga in an e-mailed response. “A certificate might take a few months, a bachelor’s degree might take 3 years, and a master’s can be completed in about a year. There are a lot of students who will pay a higher tuition so that they are able to finish much more quickly than the cheaper public universities.”

Graduate game development student at the Guildhall at SMU, Vicki Smith, said it is already hard enough to get respect for a degree in video game design, let alone one from a technical school. Smith looked into many programs but knew the Guildhall was the best choice to add value to her portfolio.

“I did look into some technical schools, but never very seriously,” Smith said in an e-mail interview. “A technical degree simply does not carry the same weight as a master’s from a recognized university.”

Smith counts on SMU’s reputation to get her a job after graduation.

“Because of the Guildhall’s track record, paying my tuition felt less like e-gamble and more like an investment.”

One of the selling points of for-profit colleges is that they are open access institutions that accept students who might otherwise be denied admission to traditional institutions.

Luchuga says what this translates to is that for-profits enroll a much higher percentage of low-income and minority students than non-profit institutions.

This seems to be the case at ITT.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics website, graduates from the Richardson ITT campus are 52 percent Hispanic, 25 percent white and 22 percent black. However, only four percent of full-time, first-time students who started at ITT in 2004 graduated in the specified amount of time.

Lechuga warns that the downside to accepting so many students is that they may not be able to handle a college workload.

“Students who are less academically prepared, of which for-profits have a higher percentage, may drop out of college owing lots of money,” Lechuga said.

Jamel Manoun is a senior at Plano East Senior High School who plans to go to Collin County Community College when he graduates. He says he never even considered attending a technical school.

“Those schools seemed frowned upon, there’s a negative stigma if you go to ITT,” Manoun said.”People who failed go there.”

He chose community college because it is cheaper than going straight to a four-year college.

“I’m going for two years and then transferring to save money,” Manoun said.

Although paying for community college is pennies on the dollar compared to ITT, Lechuga said for some, their time is worth the money.

“While tuition at community colleges is cheaper than at for-profits, some students don’t want to waste time taking classes that don’t count toward their certificate or degrees because they can’t get into the classes they need to graduate,” Lechuga said.

Still, there are many people like Hernandez who don’t think the training at an expensive technical school helped them in the long run. After ITT, Hernandez graduated from the Art Institute of Dallas and is currently looking for a job, which she said is still hard.

“The main issue of concern with their debt is whether the education students from for-profits received was enough to help them to get a job that allows them to pay back their loans,” Lechuga said. “But, this is also an issue for students at traditional colleges as well.”