For-profit tech colleges: Can IT pros and employers trust them?

Colleges such as University of Phoenix, DeVry, and Kaplan have come under fire for high costs, deceptive practices

When Steven Peabody chose the University of Phoenix for his bachelor's in business and information systems management in 2001 and his MBA in technology management in 2008, he knew he was paying a lot extra to take classes on his own schedule and finish his degrees as quickly as possible.

Some $54,000 in debt later, he's pleased with the education but not so much with the loans, especially since losing his job as a project manager in December 2008. He now runs a small IT services company and teaching at a private college. "If I could go back in time," he might have decided to "sacrifice my time over my wallet" by attending a less expensive, but less convenient not-for-profit school.

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For-profit schools, such as Capella University, DeVry University, ITT Technical Institute, Kaplan University, University of Phoenix, and Walden University have come under increasing scrutiny for alleged deceptive practices that leave students in high debt for jobs that pay little. An August 2010 General Accountability Office study of 15 for-profit schools that receive 89 percent or more of their revenue from federal student loans found that 4 encouraged fraudulent practices and all 15 made deceptive or otherwise questionable statements (PDF) to the GAO's undercover applicants. And the Obama administration has proposed reducing student loan support to such schools due to concerns over students' inability to repay their loans because of the high costs of their degrees and the low wages many graduates get.

Should IT pros looking to increase their skills, or people seeking to enter the IT profession, consider such for-profit schools? And should employers trust their graduates' skills?

The lure of such schools is strong for many students seeking careers in IT, especially those who already have jobs or families or are deployed with the military. Unable to find classes at cash-strapped community colleges or to get to physical classes on a set schedule, they're lured by the convenience and ease of for-profit schools.

Former students and observers say such schools, where enrollment has risen sharply in recent years, can provide a good IT education if you choose the institution carefully. But you could pay twice as much or more per credit as you would at a public school. The extra money gets you easier registration, more help planning your program, instant class availability, and online courses tailored to your schedule.

How for-profit tech schools earned a bad reputation

For-profit schools carry a stigma in some eyes because of their reputation for hard sales pitches, aggressive marketing tactics, and saddling students with big loans for dubious degrees or certificates.

A November 2010 report from the Education Trust found that for-profits offering bachelor's degrees in 2008 graduated, on average, 22 percent of their first-time, full-time students, compared with 55 percent of such students at public institutions and 65 percent at private nonprofits. It also found that the median debt of bachelor's degree recipients at for-profits in 2007-2008 was $31,190, almost twice that of private nonprofits and more than 3.5 times that of public colleges.

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