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

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Education Sector's Miller warns of expensive courses in "aspirational" fields such as computer animation, special effects, and graphic design for which there are few jobs. Chip White, co-founder of DegreeInfo.com, a website for those interested in online education, says that trade and technical schools, which cater to those looking for lesser-skilled jobs such as basic computer repair, "are some of the worst offenders" in overcharging students for the jobs they're being prepared for.

Other tips include checking the school's loan default rate, graduation rate, and the average level of debt graduates carry. Some observers also suggested comparing a for-profit's curriculum with that of not-for-profits in the same area, and making sure that the job you're being trained for is actually in demand.

Jesús Borrego, now a faculty member at Regis University, looked carefully at online universities and was "very disappointed" by some that promised a doctorate in suspiciously short time periods. One, for example, told him he could get his doctorate in two years, by giving him "lots of credit for life experience. We'll get you in and out -- that was their basic pitch. I could save a lot of money by getting Photoshop and printing a degree" instead, he says.

When for-profit colleges do deliver for their students
Some for-profit colleges' students, even those with substantial debt, say they were happy to pay extra for guaranteed access to classes, flexible schedules, and more help planning an education and career.

Unlike the breaks between semesters at a not-for-profit, says IT services company owner Peabody, "You finished one course and next Monday, you were onto the next. You didn't have to analyze what courses you had already completed. They said, 'Here are your schedules all the way through to graduation.'"

"The program is mapped out so that you don't need to change classes around" or puzzle over which class to take next, says Adam Lopez, a senior IT business consultant for a West Coast health care provider; Lopez received an associate degree in computer and electronic engineering technology and a bachelor's in information systems security in March 2009 from ITT Tech. "They pretty much walk you through the entire program," he says, unlike at a community college where a student might "have no direction about what you want to do."

"Everyone is always complaining about how some of the classes at community colleges aren't available, so your program can take longer than two years," says Lopez. "At ITT Tech, all the classes are always there."

The cost of that convenience and availability is high: Lopez incurred a school debt of $80,00 to $90,000, which he and his parents are splitting. Now 24, Lopez figures he should repay his loan "within 10 years. I'll be 35, around that time -- still young." (At a 6 percent interest rate, a $90,000 loan costs $1,000 per month to repay in 10 years.)

"Overall, you are paying for convenience," says Reba Gaines, who owns her own IT consulting firm and has $70,000 in loans from her bachelor's in information technology and MBA in technology management programs at the University of Phoenix. While the loans are "going to take a while to repay" she says, "I think it's put me in a position with my career where I'm not as expendable" as she otherwise might be.

The convenience of the online courses was also critical for Gaines, as she was constantly traveling for business while studying. Although almost all schools offer online courses, former students say for-profits seem to do a better job of gearing them to the needs of mobile adult learners.

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