April is Community College Month. This doesn’t get as much play as other commemorative months, but community colleges across the nation provide more people with greater access to the American dream than perhaps any other type of institution.
At ICC alone, we have touched more than 400,000 minds through credit coursework, cultural events, College for Kids, continuing education and more. We have been the starting place for Caterpillar executives, doctors, lawyers, television producers, professional baseball and basketball players, teachers, legislators and authors, as well as countless healthcare professionals and public servants. Many of the people who make our daily lives easier, safer and more comfortable got their starts right here: automotive technicians, welders, air conditioning technicians, farmers, computer technicians, interpreters for the deaf, landscapers…the list goes on and on.
Today, education is a $300 billion industry, and for most of America’s history, it has primarily been in the hands of the public, the church or non-profit institutions with a mission of educational service. Recently, however, there has been an influx of for-profit institutions in the industry. These schools and colleges operate to generate a profit for shareholders or owners. Many charge high tuition for their students, but use public dollars, such as Pell grants, state grants and low-interest governmental loans, to offset exorbitant charges. In essence, they are using public funds—our taxes—to generate private profits for owners and shareholders. Unlike Illinois Central College, which answers to a publicly elected board of trustees, these institutions have no responsibility to the public for the use of these tax dollars.
In general, competition is good. It stimulates innovation and keeps organizations from becoming complacent. However, education has gotten so complex, with accreditations, governmental grants and loans, and awarding of college credits, that the community at large is confused by what these organizations promise. Sadly, each year, many students come to us who have enrolled in a for-profit school only to find that credits earned are not really college credits, that “fully-funded” programs consist of loans that actually must be paid off, and that opportunities for internships or jobs were not as the organization has promised.
This is not to say that all for-profit colleges and schools are scam artists. But the education sector is seen by many proprietaries as a target, rich with unsuspecting “scholars,” where an easy buck can be made at both the students’ and the public’s expense. First-generation, poor, minority and adult students are the usual marks for these organizations because they are unsuspecting and offer the greatest opportunity for procurement of government dollars.
What should a person look for in choosing a college or technical school?
- In our region, the first thing you should look for is whether the school is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. This accreditation identifies schools that offer legitimate college credit. Go to ncahlc.org and select the “Affiliated Institutions” to see whether an institution is accredited.
- Second, you need to see whether credits will transfer in Illinois. The Illinois Articulation Initiative (IAI) is an agreement among accredited schools to allow easy transfer of core curriculum courses. To see whether a school participates, visit itransfer.org/newwebsite/iai/participating.aspx?section=students.
- Third, you need to determine how many students receive financial aid in the form of loans and what the average size of the loan is. To find out how a school finances student costs, visit nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator. Watch for high percentages of loans in the student body and high amounts in the loans themselves.
- Fourth, look for disclaimers such as “limited transferability” or “courses may not transfer to other institutions.” While coursework leading to technical degrees or certificates may not always transfer to an associate’s or bachelor’s program, prospective students who think that somewhere down the road they may want to enroll in a baccalaureate program should discuss the opportunities for transfer credit with the prospective school and the prospective transfer school. Core curriculum (as defined by the IAI) should always be eligible for transfer if the institution is reputable.
- Fifth, look for what kinds of support services the institution offers: access services for those with disabilities; foundational coursework for those who need extra help; free tutoring in subject areas; academic advisement; personal and career counseling; job placement; and student activities.
- Finally, look for colleges and schools that have a track record and have earned the public’s trust.
The world of education is getting more competitive, and that’s a good thing for advancing the effectiveness of the industry. But competition brings competitors who have different missions and objectives in the market than we’re used to. Most have the primary goal of helping students achieve their goals, but some are more interested in their bottom line than students’ futures. Now, more than ever, it’s important for the public to be educated about education. With the rise of those whose primary interest in education is profit, comes the old Latin reminder: Caveat emptor: Let the buyer beware. IBI