Two Cheers for Private, For-Profit "Career" Colleges


Few educational institutions get beat up in the press more regularly than private, for-profit colleges. (If you don't believe it, read this!).

However, via Inside Higher Education comes preliminary results of a study that shows that no type of post-secondary educational institution does a better job of gradjiatin' low-income, high-risk-to-complete students than the sorts of for-profit vo-tech sorta schools:

At institutions where at least 75 percent of the students are eligible for Pell Grants, for instance, about 55 percent of career college students graduate, compared to 39 percent at four-year private and 31 percent at four-year public universities, and 45 percent of two-year private and 24 percent of two-year public colleges.

And when looking at graduation rates by race, career colleges fare better than public colleges and within reach of private nonprofit institutions.

Go figger. The profit motive may actually be good at something, like helping disadvantaged people acquire human capital.

Whole story, complete with caveats about the first-draft nature of results, limitations of data, etc., here.

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  1. Look at average income after graduation, and the picture gets even starker. Trade schools and private institutions tailor their curriculums to skills most in demand by industry.

  2. I can say from experience that when looking for a tech job, skills are sought after, not degrees. Employers want someone who can write programs and manage databases. Where you got those skills is irrelevant.

  3. Imagine my surprise.

  4. “…when looking for a tech job, skills are sought after, not degrees.”

    I have a BA in economics. When I decided to get a real job I got a several of IT certifications by studying on my own time. Counting the books and cost of the exams they probably cost $500.

  5. It’s getting really hard to defend 4 year schools for most people. It’s about time more people realize these tech schools offer a competitive product at a much better price.

    Tech schools do what high schools used to do for the non-college track, correct?

  6. I’m teaching a class at one such institution right now. Rhodes Scholars these people aren’t. But they are highly motivated to lift themselves out of their circumstances and learn marketable skills. The job placement office at the school boasts a high rate of post-graduate employment and retention.

    I, on the other hand, have a liberal arts education and a Masters in a certain Humanities discipline that shall not be named, and I have yet to find a real job.

  7. As a professor of education all I can say is…


    The idea that everyone needs to go to a four-year institutions and/or complete a full-fledged general ed program along with a specialty is just hogwash.

    If you look at the initiatives at most mid-tier four-year schools, you’ll notice they’re trying to be more like the for-profit/trade/community schools.

  8. Trade schools fill an important niche, and I will be the last person to argue that they are a Bad Thing. On the other hand, graduation rates are a very misleading measure of quality. It’s very easy in such an environment to boost graduation rates by simply giving everybody good grades, which is precisely what goes on at a lot of places. It’s all good until the job market dries up in that sector, then most people with trade school degrees have a hard time adjusting.

  9. I have no doubt that my “Intro to Programming” course at my four year school was far more difficult and enlightening than the equivalent course at an ITT tech.

    However, the goals of the course and raw content of the lessons are identical. Heck, given proper motivation you could probably learn it all using the internet. The difference is the professor.

    My prof for that course was a robotics pioneer and had us upload our java-based robot games into physical bots and get to watch them run our code in a sort of competition. At an ITT or equivalent you mostly just show up.

    If the course (my school made programming 101 mandatory for all non fine arts majors) hadn’t been so engaging I wouldn’t have learned that stuff.

  10. Career colleges should team up with employers and/or industry groups to create programs of relevant learning.

    For example: To be a trader on wall street, you don’t really need to know anything about English literature or philosophy. You have to understand how a market works, maybe know some of the common software and lingo, and get some experience understanding the rather simple mental math that goes into the decision-making process in that job.

    This is only slightly more than a high school education. Wall street has in recent years (while they were still hiring) required a four-year BA for these jobs. If a bunch of prop-trading/ibanking firms got together and designed a curriculum to be implemented by UofPhoenix or DeVry or whomever, they could reduce the cost of obtaining a relevant qualification, and perhaps justify lower starting salaries for the employees who work in those positions.

    Very few careers really NEED a college degree, but a lot require some training that is in excess of what high schools provide. Career colleges are well-positioned to fill that niche training market that I think will be the future of education.

  11. The trade school model works. Who knew?

  12. OTOH Brian, there are benefits to a four-year college education (including those pesky Humanities) that do not translate readily into jobs and marketability. Let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  13. I know someone who graduated from one of these schools, and they got eaten alive in the Silicon Valley. Albeit, he was a total douche, but I think he thought he’d be working for a major tech outfit with 6 months of “training.” This guy retained almost none of what he learned(whatever it was), however touted his degree.

    Just be careful about trade school = 4-year education, because it doesn’t to employers and it doesn’t depth of knowledge-wise. I’m on the last leg of a computer science degree and I’ve taken math courses that, all together, would take a year to master if taken alone; and that’s excluding any programming, science, or computer theory courses(not to mention the much derided “general education”).

  14. I went to a trade school, got some IT certifications, and now have a pretty decent and relatively secure job out of it.

    I’m quite interested in literature, philosophy, economics, history, and a lot of other things. It would have been nice to go to college, but I’ve managed to read Dostoevsky on my own time and use that money to buy a house.

  15. I can say from experience that when looking for a tech job, skills are sought after, not degrees. Employers want someone who can write programs and manage databases. Where you got those skills is irrelevant.

    Yes. The degree helps you get your first job in the field, but everything else is experience. I am a literature major, but I am am employed as a senior software engineer. It was tough getting my foot in the door, but once I did and got a couple years experience under my belt, no one cared anymore about my lack of a 4.0 technical degree.

    I’m not that unusual either. I know other highly placed developers who have liberal arts degrees. If you only have a trade or junior college degree, it will be much tougher, but it’s not impossible.

    You *DO* need to know your stuff, however. There’s no shortcut around that.

  16. I screwed around in various colleges for years amassing a lot of credits that added up to nothing.

    Later in life I went to Strayer and got a degree in Information Technology. I’ve been working as a software developer and database administrator for 8 years now. From what I can tell, my skills are comparable or better than many of the “better educated” people I have met professionally.

    I do know many people whose IT skills are on a plain so far above mine that they seem like magicians even to me. Oddly enough, some of those people never made it our of high school.

  17. I hesitate to use terms like “Natural talent” as they seem a bit too self-congratulatory. I do, however, think that there are personality traits that lend themselves to success in fields like programming that do not necessarily translate into success in the usual college environment.

    Highly logical? hyper-focused? overly-analytical? Go straight into programming, get a job, some money, and some experience under your belt. Then go to proper college and learn about deconstructionism if you still feel like it.

  18. It is interesting to see that many people have similar experience as me. I got a BA economics, MBA in Finance. I couldn’t find a job paying more than 25k and gave up after four years. I took a couple classes at a University in programming and learned the rest from books.

    I am not sure if my college experience has added any value to my life. Most of the material I learned has been forgotten.

  19. Maybe it was because I was only taking upper level classes but I found that the students at U of P even more interested in learning the subject matter then any of the “normal” students that were at my typical 4 year state college. I was by far the youngest in my classes (25)and when people are shelling out $1400 a class they tend to take it a lot more seriously then everyone else going to school on their parent’s or the state’s dime. My biggest complaint is that you’re pretty much reading the book on your own, then getting tested on it. I think these schools fill an important niche that regular 4 year schools can’t or don’t

  20. I returned to a state university after 12+ years in the IT industry. I am going to receive my degree in Earth and Space Exploration (think astronomy, geology and engineering), but I’m pretty sure that after I’m done with school I’ll end up back in IT. However, I think that I’ll earn significantly more money with at least a BA. Whether or not that will make up for the large debt that I’m racking up, I’m not sure.

    My girlfriend has a certification from a medical trade college…she is currently working in her field, but is also expected to do a bunch of stuff she didn’t learn in school. She’s also not earning a ton of money, but I think with her cert and the experience she’s earning, she can probably get a job almost anywhere.

    My point? I don’t really have one, except my two examples maybe adding fuel to the argument that both kinds of institutions provide benefits, but in different ways.

  21. “On the other hand, graduation rates are a very misleading measure of quality. It’s very easy in such an environment to boost graduation rates by simply giving everybody good grades, which is precisely what goes on at a lot of places.”

    Bingo. For-profit schools explicitly view students as “customers” who must always get what they want. Any professor who fails students because they want to uphold academic standards is quickly shown the door. I am as pro-market as anyone, but in this case it is the non-profit colleges who more often see things from the correct perspective. College students do not buy a degree, they buy access to knowledge that may get them a degree if they are willing to work at it. Students (and management) at for-profit colleges see themselves as buying the degree.

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