Here are the facts about for-profit higher education in Florida:
♦ More than 500,000 degrees and diplomas were earned by students at career colleges in Florida in the past five years.
♦ Currently, more than 300,000 students are enrolled in Florida in private career colleges, including 45,000 in the Tampa Bay area.
♦ Private colleges and universities educated 60 percent of the health care graduates and 60 percent of the computer and information technology graduates last year in Florida.
With more than a half-million people completing degrees — including 50 percent of those licensed as practical nurses and 20 percent of those licensed as registered nurses — one would think that analysts would seek to determine if a reported negative experience at a career college is common to most students.
A recent Tampa Tribune article indicated that 41 percent of all G.I. Bill dollars were being expended at career colleges and universities (“For-profit colleges gouging veterans, U.S. Senate report finds,” Aug. 18). That does not surprise anyone familiar with the educational programs at these schools. A 2010 survey of veterans by the Rand Corporation and the American Council in Education indicated those who selected career colleges did so because of the career-oriented offerings with flexible schedules, like-minded adult students, flexible credit transfer rules and campuses in multiple locations.
The Tribune article, repeating criticism often lobbed at private education, failed to ask why students, including veterans, choose to attend private career schools.
In most cases, these capable adults, who have defended the free world in foreign lands and who often are juggling the demands of family and employment, have chosen the best path for themselves.
ln a changing world, much of higher education delivery is stuck in a very dated model. The model focuses on traditional students — those right out of high school, attending full time. It allows students to enroll only at the beginning of semesters. Students learn in desks or lecture halls. They learn more stuff unrelated to their occupation than applies to their chosen careers.
Nontraditional students — married, parents and working adults — usually don’t have time to learn this way. They enroll throughout the year in career schools — not just at the beginning of a semester. They study online or at one of the more than 1,000 locations in Florida. They have small classes. They don’t stop their education for “summer vacation.” Most importantly, they spend their time on education directly related to their career.
Career-oriented adults are increasingly choosing this educational option. Not only do most health care and computer students make this choice, but 90 percent of all cosmetology and 83 percent of culinary students do the same.
The proof that these choices are wise is found in the graduation statistics. For those students in two-year programs or less, almost twice as many career college students graduate as compared to their community college peers.
And if you want a career, graduation matters. The Florida Legislature has documented that career college graduates make money roughly equivalent to their community college peers, and the Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that employers see little difference in their educational credentials.
Critics of career colleges almost never visit such schools to learn firsthand why so many choose to attend. They also often fail to check with government regulators tasked with determining if the complaints are legitimate or typical of student experience.
The Florida Commission for Independent Education, an agency reporting directly to the Florida commissioner of education, regulates all private career schools in the state.
At the latest commission meeting, Everest University, criticized in the Tribune article, was brought before the commission to explain all of the public attention directed at the school.
The director of the commission noted that for all the newsprint that has been devoted to Everest University, the commission has not received even one unresolved complaint from a student. Interesting.
This same commission also checks the placement rates at licensed schools not already being policed by their accreditors. So we do know that most of the students get jobs in related careers.
The facts are clear. For many students the nontraditional choice to attend a career school is the best choice. Their needs are better met. They are protected. And they finish and work. Ask the 500,000 graduates.
Curtis Austin is the executive director of the Florida Association of Postsecondary Schools and Colleges.