For-Profit Colleges Flexible But Expensive

In California, where community college nursing programs have huge waiting lists, many students are turning to for-profit colleges. Critics say students are being forced to take on more debt than they can afford.

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Costs are also a factor for those looking to work in health care. The recession has driven some unemployed adults back to the classroom, but cuts in public education are pushing some to look at private for-profit colleges. Elaine Korry reports from San Francisco on the options facing nursing students.

ELAINE KORRY: For-profit colleges have sprung up as an alternative to the long waiting lists and restrictive class schedules at many cash-strapped community colleges. Tanya Friar(ph), a mother of four, began nursing school several years ago at Delta Community College, east of San Francisco. But from the start, she says, it was tough going.

Ms. TANYA FRIAR: I wasn't able to get a lot of time off of work for different classes and, you know, I wasn't able to get into things - things were too crowded. So, it kind of, you know, shuffled me around a little bit.

KORRY: Last year, the California community colleges cut thousands of classes and Friar's tight schedule became nearly impossible. Then she heard about a nursing program at a nearby campus at the University of Phoenix. Friar transferred and says she found a school that caters to her needs.

Ms. FRIAR: It totally fit with what I have to do - running around after four kids - it doesn't require a lot of taking time off from work for me, I'm really able to adjust my schedule one day a week.

KORRY: But Friar's transfer to a for-profit college came with a huge price tag. Credits at that University of Phoenix cost 17 times more than at Friar's old school. Her degree will cost her an additional $20,000, but the added expense hasn't scared her away.

Mr. FRIAR: Education isn't cheap. I knew going into this, you know, I was going to have some debt. I will deal with it once I'm done with school. I feel like I'll be making enough money and can handle the debt that I've accrued.

KORRY: Yet studies show that many students at for-profits can't handle their debt. They leave school owing $30,000 on average, and according to government data, they are much more likely that public college students to default on federal loans.

Mr. JOSE MILLAN (Vice Chancellor, California Community Colleges): It's not good for the student to graduate from a program saddled with a huge amount of debt. But, you know, it happens.

KORRY: Jose Millan is a vice chancellor at the California Community Colleges, which train most of the state's nurses. Nursing is a popular and expensive program, and Millan admits that state schools haven't kept pace with overwhelming demand. He says California has 75 community college nursing programs and every one of them is full.

Mr. MILLAN: Obviously, that creates a lot of frustration, a lot of opportunities for students to look elsewhere to get this program that they have set their hearts on attending.

Ms. KATHY LAFOON(ph) (Assistant Nursing Director, University of Phoenix): Our campus is right on the freeway, so it's easily accessible to everybody who's traveling.

KORRY: Kathy Lafoon is an assistant nursing director at the University of Phoenix, the biggest and fastest growing of the for-profit schools. She says there's no student union or sports teams at this campus, but there is plenty of free parking and the evening courses that non-traditional students like Friar find convenient.

But critics say college isn't about convenience, it's about academics, and that's where they say many for-profits fall short.

Ms. PATRICIA BANNER: The controls just aren't there. The incentives for quality aren't there, and I think the student pays a lot of money for an inferior education.

KORRY: Patricia Banner, author of a recent Carnegie Institute report on nursing education, says the growth of for-profits has been a boon to their investors at the expense of students. There have been concerns about improper recruiting and deceptive lending practices at some of these colleges, yet they continue to graduate low-income and minority students at a faster rate than state two-year schools.

And Tanya Friar says her courses at the University of Phoenix are much more demanding than she expected.

Ms. FRIAR: I like the critical thinking aspect. I like the theory behind why I'm doing what I'm doing. I need to understand that.

KORRY: And, says Friar, that's what she'll need to be an excellent nurse.

For NPR News, I'm Elaine Korry.

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