When Going to a For-Profit College Might Make Sense

ECPI University has a better reputation than other career colleges. But is it worth the cost?

The Virginia Beach campus of ECPI University, a for-profit educational institution.
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
April 7, 2014, 9:30 a.m.

VIR­GIN­IA BEACH, Va. — ECPI Uni­versity’s cam­pus here looks like a sub­urb­an of­fice park, and that’s ex­actly the feel its ca­reer-fo­cused stu­dents want. “I was really tired of mak­ing $9 an hour. The only way you’re go­ing to make more than that is go­ing back to school,” says Dari­us Mitchell, 27. A state-uni­versity dro­pout who has spent years work­ing re­tail jobs, he con­sol­id­ated pre­vi­ous stu­dent loans and took out ad­di­tion­al ones to en­roll here.

“The ques­tion I was faced with: Do you go deep­er? Or do you con­tin­ue do­ing what you’re do­ing, and nev­er get out?” Mitchell says of his debt. He’ll gradu­ate from ECPI’s cam­pus here in May with an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree in net­work se­cur­ity and a job at Can­on In­form­a­tion Tech­no­logy Ser­vices. It’s not Google, but it might be Mitchell’s entry point in­to the middle class. 

At about $14,000 a year, tu­ition at ECPI is more than triple that of an in-state stu­dent at nearby Tide­wa­ter Com­munity Col­lege. But low-in­come stu­dents are will­ing to cough up the money be­cause pro­grams are short­er, gradu­ation rates are high­er, and 85 per­cent of stu­dents move in­to jobs in their field of study — usu­ally health care or tech­no­logy — soon after gradu­ation. ECPI serves about 9,800 stu­dents across 13 loc­a­tions in Vir­gin­ia and the Car­o­li­nas, of­fer­ing cre­den­tials from cer­ti­fic­ates to mas­ter’s de­grees.

But stu­dents don’t al­ways ex­per­i­ence a high re­turn on in­vest­ment. Only about half of ECPI pro­grams re­cently eval­u­ated by the Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment pass pro­posed fed­er­al stu­dent debt and de­fault stand­ards for ca­reer pro­grams, al­though the rest are close to passing. Ad­min­is­trat­ors here say they’re work­ing to keep tu­ition af­ford­able and start­ing salar­ies high — but they can’t con­trol the eco­nomy.

Buy­ing Op­por­tun­ity

Many jobs that used to be open to a work­er with just a high-school dip­loma now re­quire ad­vanced train­ing. Med­ic­al as­sist­ants, who work on ad­min­is­trat­ive tasks in doc­tor’s of­fices and earn about $29,000 a year, are usu­ally re­quired to hold a post­sec­ond­ary cer­ti­fic­a­tion or an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree. To be­come a nurse, a med­ic­al as­sist­ant would need to go back to school.

In many fields, edu­ca­tion re­quire­ments are tight­en­ing be­cause jobs have be­come more com­plex. In 2010, ECPI in­tro­duced a pro­gram in mechat­ron­ics — a design dis­cip­line that in­cor­por­ates mul­tiple fields of en­gin­eer­ing — be­cause re­gion­al man­u­fac­tur­ers are look­ing for work­ers with skills in ad­vanced pro­duc­tion-line tech­no­logy that blends com­puter pro­gram­ming and en­gin­eer­ing. In oth­er tech­no­logy jobs, work­ers of­ten need to re­train to stay on top of the latest tools and pro­cesses.

For-profit col­leges, oth­er­wise known as pro­pri­et­ary in­sti­tu­tions, cur­rently serve about 13 per­cent of all col­lege stu­dents. Wheth­er they’re or­gan­ized as small busi­nesses or pub­licly traded com­pan­ies, for-profit edu­ca­tion­al in­sti­tu­tions sell a tan­tal­iz­ing product: a fast track to a bet­ter-pay­ing job. Al­though they can be ex­pens­ive, for-profits at­tract dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­bers of low-in­come, adult, and minor­ity stu­dents, who rely on fed­er­al grants and loans to meet high tu­ition costs.

These in­sti­tu­tions are no­tori­ous for leav­ing stu­dents with mean­ing­less cre­den­tials and lots of debt. The sec­tor ac­counts for about one-third of stu­dent loans and nearly half of loan de­faults, ac­cord­ing to the Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment. Fed­er­al and state in­vest­ig­a­tions in­to for-profit in­sti­tu­tions have be­come so com­mon that last week, con­gres­sion­al law­makers pro­posed cre­at­ing an in­ter­agency com­mit­tee to co­ordin­ate them all. 

ECPI Uni­versity has a bet­ter repu­ta­tion than most for-profits. That might be partly be­cause the in­sti­tu­tion wants to of­fer qual­ity pro­grams that meet the needs of re­gion­al em­ploy­ers. ECPI Pres­id­ent Mark Drey­fus says that he wouldn’t run the in­sti­tu­tion any dif­fer­ently as a not-for-profit. “Your philo­sophy is the same — you’re for the stu­dents. If the stu­dent suc­ceeds, we suc­ceed,” he says. Since Drey­fus’s fath­er foun­ded ECPI in 1966 as the Elec­tron­ic Com­puter Pro­gram­ming In­sti­tute, the for-profit has ex­pan­ded to of­fer more and more ad­vanced de­grees, mostly in health care and tech­no­logy, in re­sponse to re­gion­al work­force needs.

ECPI also serves a pop­u­la­tion that’s a little more af­flu­ent than those at loc­al cam­puses of low-per­form­ing for-profit chains. About 47 per­cent of ECPI stu­dents re­ceive fed­er­al Pell grants and 57 per­cent are non­white, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tion­al Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion Stat­ist­ics. At nearby Everest Col­lege, in Ches­apeake, 68 per­cent of un­der­gradu­ates re­ceive Pell grants and 76 per­cent are non­white. To en­roll, ECPI stu­dents must be able to per­form col­lege-level work and com­mit to en­rolling full-time.

Stu­dents are drawn here be­cause, un­like at a com­munity col­lege, they 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. Stu­dents don’t have to load up on courses to meet broad re­quire­ments; they only take classes rel­ev­ant to the cre­den­tial they want. 

Stu­dents are also buy­ing ac­cess to a pro­fes­sion­al net­work. Mat­thew Bailey, 43, knew he’d need help get­ting a job in a new in­dustry. “I’ve built just about everything un­der the sun. But all those jobs are gone,” he says. A farm boy who dropped out of high school and has worked labor jobs all his life, Bailey nev­er learned to touch type but is now work­ing to­ward a de­gree in soft­ware de­vel­op­ment. ECPI’s ca­reer-ser­vices team helped con­nect him with a job in tech sup­port for Web-host­ing ser­vice In­Mo­tion Host­ing.

ECPI’s gradu­ation rate of 40 per­cent for first-time col­lege stu­dents is low by na­tion­al stand­ards. But it’s twice the gradu­ation rate at the loc­al com­munity col­lege and close to the 49 per­cent gradu­ation rate at Old Domin­ion Uni­versity, the ma­jor four-year state uni­versity in the area. In 2011, ECPI awar­ded more com­puter sci­ence as­so­ci­ate’s de­grees to Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans like Mitchell than all the pub­lic com­munity col­leges in Vir­gin­ia com­bined.

About 45 per­cent of ECPI stu­dents have been to col­lege be­fore. Many have struggled with what Drey­fus calls a “tread­mill of high­er edu­ca­tion”: end­lessly pur­su­ing cred­its without com­plet­ing them, or pay­ing for a series of de­grees that don’t seem to get them ahead in the work­force. It’s hard enough for re­cent gradu­ates of elite col­leges to find jobs, Drey­fus says, let alone work­ing adults who don’t have the edu­ca­tion or so­cial con­nec­tions that can help get a job-seeker through the door.

“How do we get them on the on-ramp? And how do they be­come suc­cess­ful?” Drey­fus asks. “That first job is so hard to get, and so im­port­ant.”

Then What?

But as Bailey and Mitchell know all too well, not all jobs de­liv­er so­cial mo­bil­ity. Fed­er­al data re­cently re­leased by the Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment show sub­stan­tial vari­ation in what ECPI’s gradu­ates from 2007 to 2009 ended up mak­ing in 2011. The data sug­gest that the av­er­age gradu­ate earned about $28,000 that year, less than the na­tion­al av­er­age for adults with just a high-school de­gree. 

Gradu­ates of longer, high­er-level ECPI pro­grams ten­ded to fare bet­ter: Re­gistered nurses with bach­el­or’s de­grees earned over $50,000, while med­ic­al as­sist­ants with as­so­ci­ate’s de­grees earned about $20,000. Gradu­ates of some com­puter sci­ence pro­grams earned more in 2011 than ECPI would have pro­jec­ted from start­ing salar­ies; culin­ary-school gradu­ates didn’t do as well as the in­sti­tu­tion would have hoped. 

Jeff Ar­thur, ECPI’s vice pres­id­ent for reg­u­lat­ory af­fairs and chief in­form­a­tion of­ficer, cau­tions that the Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment data fol­low stu­dents who gradu­ated right around when the fin­an­cial crisis hit — a ter­rible time to be look­ing for work.

There are re­gion­al dif­fer­ences, too. ECPI’s in­tern­al data show that the Man­as­sas cam­pus pro­duces high­er-paid gradu­ates than any oth­er loc­a­tion, not be­cause the pro­grams are any dif­fer­ent, but be­cause stu­dents live in the boom­ing eco­nomy sur­round­ing Wash­ing­ton.

Com­par­able data are not avail­able for re­cent gradu­ates of pub­lic state col­leges or pub­lic not-for-profit col­leges in the same jobs in the re­gion, which makes it dif­fi­cult to as­sess how ECPI gradu­ates have fared com­pared with peers with the same cre­den­tials and sim­il­ar so­cioeco­nom­ic back­grounds. Stu­dent de­fault rates for ECPI pro­grams were lower than at oth­er area for-profit cam­puses such as Everest Col­lege. 

The threat of fed­er­al reg­u­la­tion has forced ECPI to pay closer at­ten­tion to de­fault rates and start­ing salar­ies. In 2012, a Sen­ate com­mit­tee re­port cri­ti­cized the uni­versity for high with­draw­al rates from on­line pro­grams and an above-av­er­age stu­dent-loan de­fault rate. ECPI ad­min­is­trat­ors counter that on­line pro­grams make up just 11 per­cent of en­roll­ment, and that the stu­dent-loan de­fault rate has dropped from 23 per­cent in 2008 to 15 per­cent today, lower than the na­tion­al av­er­age for com­munity col­leges.

“It is a game changer. I mean, it really is,” Drey­fus says of the Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment’s pro­posed stand­ards for ca­reer pro­grams. If pro­grams don’t keep stu­dent-loan pay­ments be­fore a cer­tain share of earn­ings, and keep de­fault rates low, they won’t be able to en­roll stu­dents re­ceiv­ing fed­er­al fin­an­cial aid. The pro­posed stand­ards would pro­tect stu­dents by push­ing in­sti­tu­tions to charge tu­ition based on what stu­dents can ex­pect to earn three years after gradu­ation. But there’s still no guar­an­tee that a stu­dent’s in­vest­ment of time and money in a for-profit de­gree will pay off in the form of a fin­an­cially re­ward­ing ca­reer path.

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