TAMPA — They are largely satisfied with their day-to-day learning experience, but some students who attended for-profit colleges are struggling to answer a key question in higher education: Is it all worth it?
A new study by the research group Public Agenda concludes that 32 percent of alumni of for-profit schools said their investment “really wasn't worth it,” with 30 percent saying it “remains to be seen” whether their degree would be worth the cost and effort. Thirty-seven percent of alumni said the experience was “well worth it.”
Count Tampa student Niulca Tavarez among the latter group.
She's studying clinical mental health counseling at Argosy University in Tampa and says she's “100 percent convinced” her education will pay off in the future. “If not, I wouldn't keep coming here,” Tavarez said.
The Public Agenda report, “Profiting Higher Education? What Students, Alumni and Employers Think About For-Profit Colleges,” reflected the mixed results on perception of college impact and suggested that students at for-profits were largely uninformed about their schools and hadn't taken advantage of data available to them when they picked an institution.
The situation is significant because for-profit colleges such as the University of Phoenix, DeVry University and ITT Technical Institute have seen major increases in enrollment, from about 4.7 percent of all U.S. undergraduate enrollment in the 2001-02 academic year to 13.3 percent in 2011-12, the latest figures available.
And according to Carolin Hagelskamp, Public Agenda's director of research and the report's lead author, an uninformed student is a disadvantaged student.
“We saw that prospective students don't really think about things like average graduation rate, dropout rate, what the typical graduate earns, the salaries and positions they get,” Hagelskamp said. “These are key educational statistics that the federal government is collecting and spending a lot of money and effort to make available to the public so they can make informed decisions.”
❖ ❖ ❖
The report said just 4 in 10 students at for-profits considered another school before they decided to enroll.
The report also cited what its authors called the “startling lack of awareness” among students about the overall concept of for-profit colleges. Sixty-five percent of current for-profit students and 63 percent of alumni were unsure whether their school was a for-profit or not.
Noah Black, a spokesman for the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, said the survey results reflect changes in higher education. “I wouldn't draw the conclusion that students are uninformed about what they're doing, they're just informing themselves about different things,” he said.
Black citied the traditional scenario of a potential college student sitting down at the dinner table with his or her parents, poring through college catalogs and reaching a decision on the student's future. Today, he said, that scenario might involve a single parent raising a 5-year-old and considering a college, wondering where to find the flexibility needed to go to school and take care of children.
“We do a lot of things differently today than we did 20 years ago,” he said.
In the survey, for-profit schools received impressive marks when it came to the nuts and bolts of higher education.
Ninety-one percent of current undergraduates said they received effective guidance so they could stay on track; 87 percent said they had instructors who cared about their students and knew how to teach; 85 percent said their school provided good opportunities to work in teams; 85 percent said class sizes were kept small; and 83 percent said there was hands-on help with financial aid applications.
❖ ❖ ❖
The report said prospective students looking at a for-profit college say qualities like online learning, accelerated programs and hands-on support are key considerations.
“As this report details, private-sector institutions are being responsive to today's students in ways that traditional institutions are not,” Black said. “This includes flexibility in courses and timing, offering skills demanded by employers, and accepting and accommodating students from a variety of backgrounds.”
In the Tampa area, for-profit schools have come under fire from students and employees. In February 2013, a graduate sued Everest University, saying he was misled about his ability to transfer credits and that he racked up $27,000 in student debt for a degree he said has “no value.”
Also last year, a former employee of the Sanford-Brown Institute sued that school, saying she refused to go along with misrepresentations of placement and enrollment numbers.
But Tavarez, the Tampa student getting certified as a clinical mental health counselor, said she is satisfied with her experience. Unlike many of her peers, she did extensive research on Argosy University before enrolling.
“The professors are great here, you get one-on-one time with them. I'm definitely happy with Argosy,” she said.