I was driving my sixteen-year-old son into Williamsburg tonight (actually, being driven by him, a different and altogether more terrifying experience) when I heard this story on Marketplace:
KAI RYSSDAL: Last year, we reported, along with ProPublica, on some of the high-pressure recruiting tactics that are being used at for-profit colleges, like at the biggest one, the University of Phoenix.
BRANDON BURKE: One thing we would be told to do is call up a student who was on the fence and say, “All right, I’ve only got one seat left. I need to know right now if you need me to save this for you.” Well, that wasn’t true.
It turns out the federal government been looking into recruiting and student debt loads at some of those for-profit schools as well.
Oddly enough, I had just spent a frustrating hour on the University of Phoenix website, trying to figure out how to garner a little more information on its offerings without actually registering for a “Would you like more information?” sales pitch. (More on that shortly.) I’d also paid virtual visits to Kaplan University, Ashford University, Westwood University, FloridaTechOnline, and a handful of others.
There were two reasons for this–I was looking for a meteorology course for my thirteen-year-old and was striking out on the high school level, so I thought I’d try introductory college courses instead. (Not much luck, incidentally, so if you have suggestions, please post them.) Also, I’d just the previous week given my Preparing for College workshop in Richmond–and had fielded a bunch of inquiries later about online college. Wasn’t this a great option for home educators? Isn’t it a natural extension of the home education experience?
I’m not anti-technology in the slightest. I am the proud owner of four websites, three Macs, two blogs, and a Kindle. But I’m not a fan of the online college option. There are six pieces of advice I’d give to anyone considering online higher education, and if you take them I think you’re likely to decide against this option for your high school senior.
1. Look for accreditation.
Any online school that takes tuition in exchange for college credit should be accredited through Middle States, the Southern Association, the Western Association, or another of the six regional accreditation associations.
Not all bricks-and-mortar schools that recruit home schoolers are accredited either, but I’d make this an absolute non-negotiable if I were picking a school for my kid.
Why does accreditation matter? aren’t we educational rebels, after all?
Not when I’m writing a check for $10,000+, I’m not. I’m sure great education can happen in unaccredited classrooms, but if I’m shelling out that amount of tuition, I want my kid to have a fighting chance of transferring those credits or attending grad school–and that’s not going to happen with an unaccredited transcript.
2. Distinguish for-profit schools from online branches of established universities.
For-profit schools such as Kaplan, Phoenix, DeVry and others were founded for the sole purpose of earning money. That doesn’t mean the education is automatically worse–but it does mean that its representatives are far more likely to be overselling the quality that’s present. A for-profit school doesn’t turn down unqualified students; it collects their tuition. Classes full of unqualified students tend towards the mean. I speak as an instructor: when you have a higher percentage of unprepared student, the intellectual level of the entire class drops.
These schools have also been garning a reputation as ruthless marketers. Another Marketplace piece highlighted the problem, quoting a few prospective students:
KATHERINE CLARK: They were very persistent.
TERESA BARRON: She called me every day.
DANIEL RAY: I legitimately got three or four calls a day for about two weeks until I finally talked to him.
Katherine Clark, Teresa Barron, and Daniel Ray are just three of the many students around the country who tell a similar story. They’ve been hounded by enrollment counselors from for-profit colleges. Anyone familiar with the sales profession will recognize some of their hard-sell tactics.
That’s the experience I had; last year, I filled out “more information” cards for several for-profit online schools, just trying to find out what the process was like since I’d gotten inquiries from parents of home-educated teens. They emailed, wrote, and called at night, on Sunday morning, during dinner. I seriously thought I was going to have to change my phone number. Or enter the Witness Protection Program.
3. Remember that online schools are cash cows for the established universities as well.
While established universities aren’t nearly as bad about hunting down possible enrollees, they still don’t apply the same standards to online students as to regular on-campus students. My cautions about the level of difficulty are the same.
4. Realize that most online schools are professional colleges, not liberal arts institutions.
Marketplace calls these schools “career colleges,” and it’s a good name; they offer very specific, limited narrow training in particular skills. There’s a place for that sort of education, of course, but I think it is better suited to older students who need a degree to progress further in the career they’ve already chosen–or older students who’ve already had life and work experience and know what they want to do. Younger students should be given the opportunity to take a wider spectrum of classes and spend more time in exploration and discover.
5. Consider the value of an intellectual community.
I’ve always thought college-at-home was a poor option for one major reason: you don’t develop an intellectual community. Much of the value of a college education comes as you interact with the ideas and experiences of others–both your peers and your professors. A college education is intended to introduce you to a whole new world. When you stay at home, you may glance through the window at a whole new world, but you don’t ever join it.
Which is related to my last point…
6. Don’t overprotect.
At-home and online college education is an extension of the home education experience…but home education should also come to a natural end. Isn’t our goal to raise adults who will leave that experience and strike out on their own?
Experiences or thoughts to share? Please do.