Promise Of Jobs Lures Many To For-Profit Schools

Many for-profit colleges and universities sell their services based on a near-promise: Our degrees will get you a job. But there is no reliable way of measuring success rates when it comes to employment. That doesn't stop students from piling up huge debt in the hopes of getting a dream job.

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More than 3 million people in this country attend for-profit colleges and universities. Many do so because for-profits promise practical training for the job market, but some critics argue the industry doesn't keep those promises and that a for-profit degree all too often leads to crushing debt, not a dream job.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: At the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, hundreds of young art students gather in an ornate lecture hall. They're eager to hear Mark Smith, a representative from Nike, who's talking about the one thing they all care about - getting a job as an artist or a designer in the industry.

This is why students here are willing to pay tuition averaging more than $18,000 a year. They are promised access to big names in design, movies, video games and fashion.

Resident Elisa Stephens, granddaughter of the school's founder, says the school's enrollment and reputation have grown because she delivers jobs to most of her students.

Dr. ELISA STEPHENS (President, Academy of Art University San Francisco): We're seeing that our graduates are getting jobs. We had 82 percent job placement at the undergraduate level, and 91 percent for graduate school.

ABRAMSON: Many of the students here are taking on years of debt betting that the school's career counseling will get them where they want to go. Like Dorothy Teelson(ph), a 22-year-old who wears elaborate eye makeup that helps set off her shock of red hair. Teelson is dead set on succeeding in the small niche of stop motion animation. She left a less expensive college program in Colorado, moved to California, and signed up at the Academy of Art University, despite the staggering amount of debt she'll face.

Ms. DOROTHY TEELSON: About $88,000.

ABRAMSON: $88,000 in debt that you'll have when you leave this school.

Ms. TEELSON: Correct.

ABRAMSON: Students at for-profit schools like this one borrow much more on average than those at not-for-profit institutions. Dorothy Teelson says her parents have questioned her decision to take such a big gamble, but she has no doubts.

Ms. TEELSON: I'd rather be doing something I love and be broke than be doing something I hate and be rich.

ABRAMSON: Big employers like Dreamworks and Disney say a degree from the Academy of Art University does mean a lot to them and they hire regularly from the school. But students can't really get hard numbers on what their job chances are.

Lauren Asher is with the Institute for College Access and Success, an advocacy group critical of the for-profit industry.

Ms. ASHER: What limited information colleges are required to tell students, whether or not they're required to report it anywhere else, is not externally verified in any way.

ABRAMSON: Right now, data on job placement comes from the institutions themselves. The state and federal governments do not verify the information from the Academy of Art University or other for-profits. The federal government is tightening standards in this area. But it's still unclear whether the government can verify employment claims made about millions of for-profit students.

(Soundbite of classroom)

ABRAMSON: Just across town, graphic art students work on computers at the City College of San Francisco. Their community college degree will be a little less flashy, but they will also start their graphics careers with a lot less debt.

Melissa Lee(ph) is 30 years old. She's returning to college after years of low wage jobs. She was all set to sign up for an expensive art degree at a not-for-profit private school. At the last minute, she balked at the $50,000 a year price tag.

Ms. MELISSA LEE: I couldn't afford it even with all my grants and loan.

ABRAMSON: Melissa Lee really wanted to attend that private school, but the cost convinced her to come here. Even though city college is basically free for her, Lee still has to borrow $10,000 a year to support her and her young son.

Ms. LEE: I know so many people right now who are really struggling and the pressure to pay these loans back is just making their lives really miserable.

ABRAMSON: City College of San Francisco does not compile statistics on how many students get jobs. The graphics design department doesn't have the resources. One number department chair Smiley Curtis does know is this.

Mr. SMILEY CURTIS (Department Chair, City College of San Francisco): All of our classes are full before the first day of class.

ABRAMSON: Over enrollment at community colleges and state schools has helped fill the roles of for-profit schools. Smiley Curtis admits that some of these more expensive schools do offer a solid education, but he doubts that the cost is justified.

Mr. CURTIS: Your portfolio is your ticket to a job. You're still assessed based on the quality of your work, which is in your portfolio.

ABRAMSON: The government's new rules are applying added pressure on for-profit schools to ensure that students do succeed and find work. There may be fewer outright abuses by over eager for-profit schools. But students will continue to face a tough choice as they decide how much to pay for a chance at a dream job.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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