For Profit Colleges

Demand by students for targeted educations in career-focused courses has sent enrollment at for-profit colleges surging in the last decade.   Enrollment at these types of institutions now accounts for about 7% of college students, and the rate of growth is 4x-5x that of students enrolling in traditional undergraduate programs.

The reasons are obvious: convenience, innovative online courses, lower cost (usually), and the ability to earn the desired degree or certificate more quickly.  However, evidence has emerged that many of these for-profit institutions are doing a poor job of educating their students – and an even worse job of helping them to land that all-important first job in their chosen field.

So, how do you separate the wheat from the chaff when there are nearly 3,000 for-profit colleges operating in the U.S.?  Frankly, you should go with the largest of the institutions because they have built superior track records of service and they have the resources to equip their schools with the right technology to make the courses relevant for students’ career goals.  Here is a short rundown of the largest for-profit colleges and their specialties. 

Also, keep in mind that none of these institutions have perfect records.  The entire industry is under scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Education and the Governmental Accounting Office for alleged abuse of students, who were encouraged to take out immense loans for worthless educational programs.  So, stay tuned, because a shakeout in the industry might be coming in 2011.

Carrington College (formerly Apollo College, not to be confused with Apollo Group, which owns University of Phoenix).  Based in Phoenix, Carrington offers an extensive array of healthcare-related courses at 10 campuses in the West.  It offers various certifications for dental hygienists, medical lab technicians, physical therapists, and similar professions.  Its track record is pretty good in those areas, and, of course, jobs are relatively plentiful in those fields.  In 2010, it started an online program to enable people to complete bachelor’s degrees, but it’s too early to judge the quality of the program.

ITT Educational Services, Inc, or “ESI” for short.  This is one of the largest programs in the country, with 38 “campuses” and an extensive online course curriculum.  ITT Ed has a ridiculous number of courses, but its deepest array of offerings are in technical fields, which is where it got its start.  These are courses like electronics, industrial automation, and computer design – the types of things that are now expected for many blue-collar jobs.  ITT offers both certifications and bachelor’s degrees, and it’s probably necessary to get the bachelor’s in order to land a job.  For people who have work and who are seeking upgrade their skills, individual courses and certification programs can be an excellent choice.   

Corinthian Colleges.   This massive operation actually operates under three different “brand” names (yes, it calls its colleges “brands.”).  Overall, Corinthian says it has more than 110,000 students.  Corinthian’s great strength is in healthcare, and it also has a huge number of industrial engineering courses (engine design, auto/truck/motorcycle repair, etc.).  To take the best advantage of these courses, it’s crucial to be able to go onsite to a Corinthian campus, because the school has state-of-the-art training equipment; doing it online just isn’t the same. 

Education Management Corp.   For students who want to get into the arts – either as artists or in arts management – Education Management Corp. is the leader.  It has developed or purchased a series of small, specialized arts institutions that provide classes in painting, sculpture, computer art, etc., as well as fashion, cooking, and hospitality management.  Given the trends in the U.S. away from manufacturing jobs, it’s easy to see why EDMC offerings have made it the 2nd-largest for-profit educator in the country (nearly 140,000 students).  The big caution here is that jobs in many of these fields are very hard to find, and it’s not clear that a degree or a certificate is necessary anyway; it’s often more about talent and hard work.      

Kaplan.  Owned by the Washington Post newspaper, Kaplan is familiar to many high schoolers through its SAT preparation courses.  Kaplan has branched out to become one of the leading for-profit educators across the spectrum.  Kaplan does’t go for the technical training; it’s trying to capture the types of students who would go to traditional colleges, but either feel they are too old or don’t have the option to go full-time.  Kaplan’s degress include things like psychology, communications, and human services, and it even has an online law school,

University of Phoenix.  The largest and best-known of the for-profit colleges, University of Phoenix has made its mark with innovative online courses and webinars (although it also has more than 200 campus sites nationwide).  It’s impossible to summarize the range of courses available to the school’s 150,000 or more students, but suffice it to say that University of Phoenix aims heavily at people who want to advance their current careers with additional business and technology and continuing education courses.  While the University goes all the way up the ladder to Ph.D. programs, it’s really best for the more immediate goals of shorter programs.  Because it’s the best-known program and pays better wages, the Universit of Phoenix typically gets better professors.  This is a crucial factor in a program, as those professors can potentially provide job advice and even job leads.