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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on Career Colleges The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on Career Colleges

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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on Career Colleges

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California Attorney General Kamala Harris sued for-profit Corinthian Colleges and its subsidiaries for alleged false advertising, securities fraud, and intentional misrepresentation.Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Corinthian Colleges Inc. is an ugly story. The for-profit college chain will soon be shuttering many of its campuses, refunding students' loans (at taxpayer expense), and farming enrollees off to other institutions. Under monitoring from the Education Department, it will sell or dissolve all of its schools within the next six months and subsume its students into other institutions. After being lax about responding to repeated requests for information from the government, the company is now more or less kaput.

The fate of Corinthian's schools, which include Everest Institute, Everest College, WyoTech and Heald brands, is not making life easier for other for-profit college companies. The industry sector as a whole has been engaged in a four-year battle with the Education Department and Congress over its practices—from aggressive marketing campaigns to inflated tuitions to flat-out cooking the books on how many of their graduates are employed. Last year, California Attorney General Kamala Harris sued the company. Massachusetts followed suit earlier this year. The Miami Herald gave an excellent overview of Corinthian's issues, and the difficulties of unraveling the company without hurting its students. 

 

The publicity around Corinthian is a dicey problem for the rest of the industry, one that has dogged it since Education Secretary Arne Duncan began a regulatory push against career colleges that has landed the parties in court. Media scrutiny skyrocketed in 2010 as a result of the regulatory push and an investigation from Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. Individual colleges began to protest, "We're not that bad."

That's hard to do without pointing fingers at the other guy. No one in the industry is going to defend Corinthian if investigators find that its administrators did, as alleged, pay temp agencies to hire their students to up their employment figures. To wit, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities hasn't issued any statements about Corinthian's demise, although its president has made it clear (when asked) that other APSCU members will need to step in to help Corinthian students finish their degrees. The members are also united in their views that the Education Department treats their industry unfairly.

Lost in this back-and-forth is the fact that not all career colleges are bad. What's more, they fill an important gap in the post-secondary education market. They provide usable educational services for some of the most disadvantaged students in the country.  

 

My colleague Sophie Quinton noted in a recent profile of ECPI University that the for-profit college is attractive to low-income students—despite its hefty price—because it offers flexibility that community colleges can't give them. Students 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 years. Plus, 85 percent of its students move into jobs in their field of study.

"There's no getting around the fact that it's really expensive," Quinton tells me. ECPI tuition is $14,000 a year, more than triple the rates of the local community college.

Price is a factor that can mean positive and negative things, depending on the situation. In ECPI's case, the extra cash might be worth it. In other places, it might be a waste. For example, the public community college Valencia College in Orlando makes its comparatively cheap health care associates' degrees a central part of its marketing campaign. An associate's degree in nursing at Valencia costs about $2,300 a year, compared with a similar degree from Rasmussen College in nearby Ocala at about $12,000 a year.

The Valencia example isn't emblematic of all community colleges. It is a unique institution that has made unprecedented efforts to increase the graduation and employment rates of its students. Not every community college does that. Nor does every career college.

 

As with most exposés in education, there are no generalizations. Corinthian's woes show the dark underbelly of an industry that until a few years ago hadn't seen much media or government attention. The good actors still get ignored. ECPI is one example. Grantham University, which makes a concerted effort to accommodate veterans, is another. There are happy, employed graduates of career colleges to be found. In 2011, at the height of the for-profit scandal bonanza, Celebrity Chef Tiffany Derry told me she loved her for-profit alma mater Art Institute of Houston.

But Derry also cautioned anyone who might go to culinary school against taking out too many loans. You'll never be able to pay back those expensive degrees on a chef's salary, she said.

For our insiders: What does Corinthian's fate say about the regulatory process? Is it working? Is it fair? Is Corinthian's story emblematic of problems throughout the industry, or is it a special case? What can career colleges do to convince the public and regulators that they are worthwhile? Should regulators be keeping tabs on all colleges the way they want to keep tabs on for-profits?

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[Note: This is a moderated blog on education issues. Comments are approved on a case-by-case basis. Contact me if you want to be a regular commenter.]

Don't Miss Today's Top Stories

Excellent!"

Rick, Executive Director for Policy

Concise coverage of everything I wish I had hours to read about."

Chuck, Graduate Student

The day's action in one quick read."

Stacy, Director of Communications

I find them informative and appreciate the daily news updates and enjoy the humor as well."

Richard, VP of Government Affairs

Chock full of usable information on today's issues. "

Michael, Executive Director

Sign up form for the newsletter

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