If you’ve read the news anytime in the past few years, you’ve probably seen a few horror stories about career education colleges, also known as for-profit colleges. While most higher learning institutions are considered non-profit, these schools tend to operate more like businesses, and are career-driven with industry-based curricula. Sounds practical enough, but some of them have gotten a bad name.
There were school closings that left students stranded and their tuition lost, and graduates who were left with useless or fraudulent degrees. There were accusations of students being advised to lie on the FAFSA. If I were a parent looking for a college for their kid, based on their reputation, there’s no way I’d send them to a for-profit college.
But that’s exactly what I did.
An Unexpected Decision
It wasn’t something I set out to do, necessarily. My daughter was accepted to some great places, including one of the top music schools in the country, and a university that’s notoriously difficult to get into. But after exhaustive months of research during which I probably pulled out half of my hair, we decided on a small music conservatory, the Los Angeles College of Music. It was career-focused, and happened to be for-profit. They offered a bachelor’s program, had the widest range of music and technical classes, and their faculty was filled with professional musicians and industry veterans.
“Despite for-profit colleges having the reputation of plunging students into debt, they offered us the only plan where we could finance her four-year stay without taking out any loans.”
Oh, and they also offered to pay half of my daughter’s tuition. Despite for-profit colleges having the reputation of plunging students into debt, they offered us the only plan where we could finance her four-year stay without taking out any loans. The other schools were all offering us a paltry amount that would cover her first week of college and a university t-shirt if we were lucky.
One of the main concerns about career education colleges is whether they have the ability to provide good post-graduate employment prospects. However, a study by Harvard University points to for-profit colleges as having the means to provide students with programs that have a clearly defined curriculum and specific employment goals, noting that, “To succeed, such programs must have close connections with industry, provide active help with job placement, and be able to adjust instruction rapidly to the changing needs of employers.” This is a good feature to consider if your child is hell-bent on pursuing music (like mine) or some other specific career path.
Sam’s Success Story
Maggie Wunsch Scott and her son, Sam, from Los Angeles, considered this during their search for a college that offered programs in audio engineering. “Sam is a really bright kid who had no interest in a traditional academic setting,” Scott says. “We had him research programs and in the end, we chose SAE (School of Audio Engineering in Los Angeles) for many reasons, among them that it was a hands-on program.”
“We felt like he came out with a really good, demonstrable skill set and a whole lot of maturity, ready for the workforce,” she adds. Sam is now a Production Supervisor/Unit Production Manager at NBC/Universal.
Sam’s experience points to one of the most attractive aspects of many for-profit colleges: The opportunity to learn from – and network with – working professionals in a real-world setting during the college years and beyond. “A school like ours can provide a deeper connection to the industry and hands-on experience,” says Brittany Churchill, Director of Marketing and Admissions for the Los Angeles College of Music. “Students have opportunities to connect with industry professionals, and like many for-profit schools, we specialize in internship placement, career counseling, and continued access to career services after graduation.
Churchill also emphasizes two other important benefits of for-profit colleges: Less time in school, and more up-to-date, constantly evolving courses while you’re there. “For-profit schools often offer students more specialized education programs with options to graduate earlier than at a non-profit institution,” she says. “We also can often make adjustments to improve the school curriculum or master class offerings quickly to remain current with the industry.”
For some, career education schools offer something else that many other schools don’t: flexibility. Devin Kanzler, a recent graduate of Grand Canyon University, says she appreciated her school’s options for her academic/work schedule. “GCU offered rolling admission and many choices of study. I attended the online school, which was the main draw,“ she says. “It allowed me to work at the same time and plan my school around that, rather than the other way around.”
Proceed With Caution
Not everyone is ready to give for-profit colleges an endorsement. Heather Brown, a college counselor for the Los Angeles Unified School District, says that she and her colleagues rarely recommend for-profit colleges, mainly because of the price tag and their unreliability. “It really comes down to a cost-to-benefit analysis,” she says. “If you look at for-profit schools and what they charge for tuition, you can find exactly the same program at a community college for a fraction of the cost.”
“Go in with your eyes open, and do your research.”
Brown says that there a few colleges – particularly art and music schools – that are specialized and may offer curriculums that aren’t offered at other campuses. But she warns against the predatory nature of some for-profit schools, saying many students pay high tuitions and are promised degrees or certifications that end up being useless once they graduate.
But there are ways to steer yourself towards the better ones, she says.
“Make sure that the school has some form of formal accreditation,” she warns. “Look at the data that is available to you when you fill out the FAFSA. And if the school doesn’t accept the FAFSA, that means the federal government doesn’t think it’s reputable.”
It’s been four years since we made our big decision, and our daughter ended up having a great college experience. She just graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree, and she’s already working as a musician. She feels she’s definitely come away from the school with many skills she might not have gotten at the other colleges, and says she would recommend the school to others seeking a similar path.
For others eyeing for-profit schools, Brown offered this sage advice: “Go in with your eyes open, and do your research.”
You might even escape with all of your hair.
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