Friday, November 28, 2014

To What Degree?

If you're planning to move up or move on in your career, the odds are you'll be back in the classroom soon. Where you go and how long it takes will depend on what type of college you attend. For a liberal arts degree, a traditional four-year institution may be your best bet. But if you need a no-mess, no-frills program, you may want to consider one of a growing number of for-profit colleges. They promise to get you in, get you qualified, and get you a job. Time and place? At your convenience.

For-profits offer many of the benefits of a private university such as small class-size, accessible faculty, and a higher level of customer service. Because their students are mainly working adults, they cut out extras like research, allowing them to offer tuition that is higher than a typical public university but cheaper than a private college. "Private for-profit institutions tend to focus on very career-focused programs because, ultimately, their market niche is placing students in jobs," says Sean Gallagher, senior analyst at Eduventures, a worldwide authority on the education industry headquartered in Boston.

What they do offer is convenience--in the form of local site-based and online programs--and flexibility. Many for-profits offer bachelors, masters, and doctoral level programs in areas such as IT (information technology), business, administration, and health care, as well as professional licensure and certificates. "We don't, on the whole, put out students with liberal arts degrees. People come to our school because they know exactly what it is that they're looking to get," says Nancy Broff, general counsel for the Career College Association.

As always, you can turn to your credit union for help financing your education goals.

For-profits often establish an employer advisory board that ensures that the instruction and equipment are as current as possible. "The schools view that they have two customers: they have the students and they have the employers," says Broff. "There's a real connection between our colleges and the workforce that you don't always find in the not-for-profit sector."

A longitudinal study--meaning one that's conducted over time--conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 75% of the students who attended career colleges said they were able to earn a higher salary, compared with 56% of students who attended public colleges, says Broff. "Asked about better job opportunities, 78% of our students said that they had better job opportunities compared with 70% at public institutions," she says.

Their market niche is placing students in jobs.

Unlike traditional brick-and-mortar colleges, for-profit universities are run as businesses and treat their students like paying customers. "A for-profit university, almost by definition, has to be extremely customer-driven," says Dr. Susan Saxton, dean of students at Kaplan College. "In the for-profit world, students vote with their feet. They need to be engaged and they need to be interested and they need to feel, especially at a distance and especially online, that we're really looking out for their interests."

Do your homework

Before you apply, do a background check to make sure the certifications, licensures, and degrees offered will be recognized and accepted by your employer, particularly if you're seeking tuition reimbursement. For-profits still are undergoing an image shift in the eyes of the public. Because they have a fairly open admissions policy, they may be seen as less selective than traditional four-year colleges.

"It's very similar to a state university or community college where it's not about selectivity and recruiting a certain type of student, but it's more opening up access to everyone," says Gallagher. A good starting point for your research is the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, which accredits many of the for-profit colleges. "The accreditation impacts what employers will hire you in certain fields, whether they'll recognize your degree, what graduate or doctoral programs you might be accepted into if you pursue further education, and whether you'll be able to attend a certain institution and be supported by your employer with tuition assistance," says Gallagher. The U.S. Department of Education is another useful source.

There's a real connection between for-profit colleges and the workforce that you don't always find in the not-for-profit sector.

Individual colleges within the university may have their own accreditation--from a state medical board, for example. Accreditation also can affect what type of financial aid you get, and how credits will transfer. In most cases, the accreditation is identical to that of traditional four-year colleges, says Gallagher.

Online success story

Concord Law School, the nation's first all-online law school, graduates students from its part-time program in four years at roughly a third the tuition cost of a private school. California, Concord's home state, is currently the only state that will let Concord's graduates take the bar, but once they have passed the California bar exam, some other states will afford the graduates reciprocity and honor the graduate's status as having passed a bar exam.

A for-profit university, almost by definition, has to be extremely customer-driven.

Many of Concord's grads use their degree to enhance their marketability. "About a quarter of the people who graduate from law school do not use their law degree to practice law. They're in business, they work for the government, they're in the public sector some other way, they're working in the nonprofit world, they're an estate planner, a financial adviser, work in the IT area in a high-tech firm--they just basically take their legal knowledge and put it to use," says Barry Currier, dean of Concord Law School.

Each year, Concord starts several cohorts of about 50 students. The program requires a commitment of about 20 hours a week. Concord's faculty live all over the United States--as do its students--but they interact regularly online. While critics say students need face-to-face contact to learn law effectively, Currier counters that the online format and greater responsiveness from instructors force everyone to participate, not just the vocal front row. "It's pretty much like the correspondence school environment, although you get good and better feedback more promptly online," says Currier. "It's a much richer environment in some ways, but obviously people can't walk outside and have a cup of coffee right after the class is over."

For-profits are still undergoing an image shift in the eyes of the public.

Are you better off at a for-profit? When you consider tuition costs, remember to factor in the convenience and savings associated with staying in the same city, avoiding a long commute, and, in the case of online programs, being able to participate in class when you're away on business. Although for-profits promise academic rigor and are frequently taught by practitioners in the field, Saxton admits that some degrees are more suitable for the online format, such as business and IT. "Are you going to be able to learn everything you need without hands-on instruction?" she says. If so, a for-profit might be for you.

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