Making the Grade

Do For-profit Colleges Provide a Benefit—or Exact a Toll?

By Gaylen Webb

December 2, 2014

When Heather Garvoille, a single mom with four children, realized her professional and personal ambitions were higher than anything she could ever hope to achieve as a shift manager at Pizza Hut, she decided to go back to school. But dark thoughts about getting lost in a sea of students, huge class sizes and teachers that couldn’t care less if she attended class kept her away from traditional post-secondary schools.

She was instead wooed by the personal attention she felt at Eagle Gate College’s campus in Murray. Eagle Gate is one of 12 private sector, for-profit colleges in Utah. Better known as career colleges, they include schools like the University of Phoenix, Argosy University and Stevens-Henager College. (It should be noted that not all private sector schools are for-profit.) Together, they address the rapidly growing demand for skilled professionals, providing vocational and technical training programs in areas such as healthcare, business, criminal justice and technology. These colleges largely focus on meeting the needs of working adults and non-traditional students.

Despite paying more in tuition than she likely would have at a public school, Garvoille says she loved her experience at Eagle Gate College because of the personal orientation, the small class sizes and, most of all, the fact that professors cared about her.

“They cared about my back story and how they could help me,” she says. “I’m not the perfect student, not by a long shot. When I ran into issues at home and felt like I wasn’t going to pass a class because I couldn’t get something done … the teachers would sit down with me and talk me through the problems. They didn’t just leave me alone to do the work. They wanted me to succeed.”

The desire to receive that kind of personal touch, as compared to the impersonal nature of public colleges and universities, is a common theme among career college students. Perhaps it is also part of the reason for the explosive growth of private sector schools.

Growth and Graduation

Approximately 42 percent of college enrollment growth in the last decade came from private sector colleges, according to website The Motley Fool, while 20 percent of the growth in bachelor’s degrees came from the 23 largest private sector schools.

The Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU) reports that 2012 enrollment in private sector schools totaled more than 3.7 million students nationally, or about 14 percent of all post-secondary enrollment.

Julie Blake, vice president of operations for the Eagle Gate College Group, says Utah enrollment in private sector colleges and universities is slightly lower than the national rate, educating 29,071 students in 2012, or 8 percent of the state’s total post-secondary enrollment of 376,101.

In terms of graduation rates, do career colleges really deliver? Yes, indeed. Nationally, U.S. Department of Education data show the average graduation rate at two-year private sector institutions is 62.8 percent—nearly triple that of public community colleges, which saw a 19.9 percent graduation rate.

For the 2011-2012 school year, the APSCU reported that students from private sector schools earned 430,457 certificates and 425,105 degrees, representing 44 percent and 11 percent respectively, of all certificates and degrees awarded among post-secondary schools.

In Utah, data from the Chronicle of Higher Education shows that private sector two-year colleges have a 72 percent graduation rate, as compared to a 35.6 percent graduation rate at the state’s public two-year colleges.

Capturing a Career

Do graduation rates at for-profit, private sector schools translate into jobs? That’s tough to determine. Trying to ascertain and compare job placement rates at career colleges, as compared to traditional colleges and universities, is difficult because accrediting agencies and states, rather than the federal government, set the standards that private sector colleges use to calculate and monitor job placement rates. Further, the methodologies the schools use vary broadly, making them practically impossible to compare.

But Blake says accountability of career colleges range from accreditation of the quality of education, state authorization and licensure, to consumer protection laws and regulations promulgated by diverse federal entities. She believes the proactive career service benefits of career colleges far exceed any career support provided by traditional colleges.

“Traditional colleges do not report placement rates to the federal government and, even though the linkage is obvious and plays out daily in the real world, many frown on connecting the idea of higher education with career preparation,” she says. “Career colleges are required by accreditation regulations to provide career services to program completers and to report retention rates, completion rates and placement rates to the federal government. Schools falling below a certain threshold for completion and placement risk losing their accreditation.”

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