Courtesy Dallas Business Journal
With the dramatic growth of the for-profit education sector over the last 10 years have come debates around the value and credibility of the degrees it produces.
A report issued in June by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, showed enrollment at for-profit schools had increased 225 percent in the past 10 years, compared with an increase in post-secondary enrollment of only 31 percent. According to the report, the sector comprised only 10 percent of students for the 2008-2009 school year, but received around 23 percent of Federal Pell grants and student loans for the same period — a total of more than $23 billion. Corresponding to the report in June, Harkin launched oversight hearings into issues surrounding the education sector, including the higher percentage of students in default on their student loans for for-profit schools than those for nonprofit schools. In many cases, proprietary, or for-profit, schools are often the best option for many nontraditional students, but for Harkin, the question is whether students at for-profit schools and taxpayers are getting their full value for the money spent.
For Debra Herd, senior vice president and director of staffing, learning and development for Dallas-based Comerica Bank, the question is one of accreditation.
If a job requires a candidate to have a degree from an accredited school, Herd says, Comerica makes no distinction between a degree from a for-profit institution such as the University of Phoenix and a traditional nonprofit university. Recruiters, however, sometimes question how much weight to give a job candidate’s school. Herd tells them to consider other job requirements in addition to the degree.
“Let’s look at the full picture,” she said. “Let’s make a holistic hiring decision.”
Herd might reconsider her position, she said, if she began to see a pattern of problems with candidates from proprietary schools. But not since 1995, when a recruiter first raised a question about a candidate’s degree from the University of Phoenix, has Herd seen any such pattern. Herd says Comerica believes the schools are subject to rigorous standards, countering criticism that the schools are held to less-demanding standards.
In Texas, the licensing and regulation of about 500 career schools and colleges, which serve more than 150,000 students, is handled by the Texas Workforce Commission. The organization recently made headlines when it took steps to revoke or deny renewal to the Certificates of Approval of four proprietary schools in Texas owned by Alta Colleges: three Westwood Colleges in Texas — including one in Dallas — and a Redstone College in Colorado that holds a license to operate in Texas. Until the end of the appeals process, the campuses’ licenses will remain in effect. The commission also has plans to take lesser action against the Dallas campus of Everest College and a Dallas campus of ATI Career Training Center, following a Federal General Accounting Office investigation. The commission reported that the schools may have violated the Texas Education Code.
The benefits of a degree from a for-profit school often outweigh the potential costs. Vicente M. Lechuga, assistant professor of higher education administration at Texas A&M University, says for-profit schools tend to respond to market demands more efficiently than traditional universities, particularly those in focused technical, trade or medical programs. Though generally more expensive, specialized for-profit schools can offer students a faster path to the training they need, getting them on the job and on the payroll faster than traditional schools.
Tony Beshara, owner and president of the Dallas recruiting and placement firm Babich & Associates, says the type of degree makes a big difference to an employer.
“Employers do not see those kind of baccalaureate degrees with quite the same respect as they do an on-site school,” he says. “[But that may be changing because] it’s becoming more and more accepted as traditional nonprofits get more into e-learning.”
According to Lechuga, it is often a different matter when applying for a position requiring a graduate degree. Hiring managers, he says, are likely to give more credibility to a degree from a traditional nonprofit institution, particularly because of the transparency of their curriculum and the quality of their instruction. But the value in the degree or certificate from a proprietary school depends on the student.
“In those cases,” Lechuga says. “Employers probably don’t care as much where you went to school; they just want to know if you’re licensed or can do the work.”