Updated on 12.28.15

For-Profit Colleges Aren’t Worth the Price

Why pay upwards of 10 times more for the same degree you could earn at a public or community college?

As someone who keeps a close eye on trends within higher education and writes about them often, I was saddened but not surprised to hear that Dade Medical College of Florida had closed its doors. The school’s for-profit model was constantly embattled in controversy, and the local media had been gnawing at them for months with accusations of fraud, deception, and more.

Sadly, the school’s closure thrust thousands of students out in the cold when it comes to their educational aspirations, but not out of the woods when it comes to the thousands of dollars they borrowed to get to this point. And boy, were those students paying a lot.

Although the school has shuttered its doors, the National Center for Education still lists accurate tuition data. At its popular Miami campus, students shelled out an average of $47,813 per year for a wide range of associate’s and bachelor’s degrees rooted in the health care sector. While financial aid likely lessened the cost for the vast majority of students, this means students were on the hook to pay, borrow, or find financial aid to cover tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and fees each year.

And for what? Nursing degrees, physical therapy assisting degrees, and other health-care related fields that cost just a fraction if earned elsewhere. Worse, many of the degrees they offered were nearly useless, or at least only partially worth earning, given the limited value of a degree from an unaccredited school.

Yes, you read that right. As the Miami Herald notes, Dade Medical College lacked the appropriate accreditation for its graduates to perform certain job duties or become certified in their respective fields. That also means credits from the school can’t be transferred in many cases, “because Dade Medical College lacked the academic accreditation needed for most universities and colleges to accept the credits.” Current students were left saddled with unrecognized credits and very real student loan debt.

Some former students of fraudulent for-profit schools — notably Corinthian Colleges, Inc., which filed for bankruptcy in May — have been deemed eligible for debt relief by the U.S. Department of Education. But it remains to be seen whether students of Dade Medical College or other failed for-profit schools will receive similar treatment.

The whole situation is a sad mess for students, school officials, and the local community. What’s even sadder is it didn’t have to be this way. For every for-profit school in Florida – and in the nation – there are a handful of cheaper, public options practically begging for your dollars. But, will you listen?

Here’s How Much You Can Save by Avoiding For-Profit Schools

Especially in Florida, a public education is cheap to come by. At Valencia College in Orlando, for example, students can earn many of the same health care degrees – including an Associate of Science in Nursing – for tuition and fees that averaged just $2,474 per year for in-state students.

The story is similar at Eastern Florida State College, where students study a wide range of technical fields, including nursing, physical therapy assisting, computer technology, and even business administration, for an average in-state tuition of just $2,496 a year.

The College of Central Florida is yet another community college with insanely affordable tuition for those seeking a better life. In-state students pay just $2,570 per year to earn degrees in everything from nursing to public administration to supply chain management.

In total, Florida is home to 63 public, two-year community colleges, most with tuition and fees that may students could afford without student aid. The state boasts another 39 public colleges that offer four-year degrees, including Florida State University, where tuition and fees averaged out to just $6,507 for in-state students this year.

Why Do Students Choose For-Profit Schools?

At this point, you’re probably wondering why anyone would knowingly choose a for-profit school when so many other affordable options are available.

The key to understanding this phenomenon – and the underlying tragedy – is taking a closer look at the type of student these schools aim to enroll. Much of the time, for-profit schools are filled with desperate people who have been searching for their one chance to get ahead – single mothers, recent immigrants, and others who may lack upward mobility.

Mother Jones hit the nail on the head in a 2014 piece on for-profit colleges titled Subprime Students: How For-Profit Universities Make a Killing By Exploiting College Dreams. “Imagine corporations that intentionally target low-income single mothers as ideal customers,” it reads. “Imagine that these same companies claim to sell tickets to the American dream—gainful employment, the chance for a middle class life. Imagine that the fine print on these tickets, once purchased, reveals them to be little more than debt contracts, profitable to the corporation’s investors, but disastrous for its customers.”

Loose enrollment requirements and the predatory nature of for-profit schools are the biggest reasons students continue to flock to for-profit schools despite their lingering bad reputations. Sadly, this is the abhorrent business model of most for-profit colleges. Since many have such dismal records they cannot use them as a recruiting tool, they prey on the weak and vulnerable with the biggest dreams to find their ideal student.

Dade Medical College did the same, even going as far as enrolling immigrants who don’t yet know the language – in other words, anything for the almighty dollar. Ernesto Perez, Sr., father of Dade Medical’s disgraced majority owner, spins it as a positive, however.

“Perez Sr. defended his son and the college,” writes the Miami Herald. “He said the college enrolls everyone — even recent immigrants who may be learning English. He said those student demographics, and the fact that many students work and have families, contributed to the school’s low passage rates on license exams.”

In his eyes, it seems the school was doing all of their students a favor. Sadly, this “favor” came at a huge financial cost to those who could afford it the least. Are we supposed to say thanks?

Do Your Research and Save Your Money

Although Dade Medical College brought Florida into the spotlight, these cost disparities and for-profit schools exist all over the country. A recent International Business Times article highlighted how ITT Technical Institute is in hot water over similar practices, and Le Cordon Bleu, a for-profit chain of culinary schools is shutting its doors due to new government standards it simply cannot meet. In every state across the nation, someone is sitting and waiting to siphon your money and rob you of your dreams.

The story is the same in my home state of Indiana. At MedTech College near my home, average tuition and fees run a cool $44,100 for programs that include an Associate of Applied Science in Practical Nursing, a Clinical Laboratory Assistant Diploma, or an Associate of Applied Science in Medical Assisting. Nearby, however, I could earn all of the same degrees at Ivy Tech Community College for in-state tuition and fees of just $4,055.

At the end of the day, it’s up to us to sniff out these predatory schools. Just like we need to know how much we’re paying for our groceries and mortgage, we need to understand how much a school will cost before we sign on the dotted line. And if you’re a parent of a child who will attend college one day, it is your duty to help them avoid an educational tragedy like the one students from Dade Medical College face today.

Fortunately, the government offers a few easy-to-use websites that are helpful in this front, including the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which boasts colorful data on everything from average tuition to graduation rates for all schools registered in the U.S.

If you want to know how much you’ll pay, you only need to look. For-profit schools are only part of the problem; as an unwitting public, we are an accomplice.

Would you ever attend a for-profit school? How do you plan to steer your children toward more affordable options when it comes to higher education?

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