When choosing an online program, Krishna Jackson of La Mesa, California, wanted flexibility, access to a campus and a bachelor’s degree in communications. Her education through the University of Phoenix, which combined online and on-site coursework, gave her all of that, she says.
While online, for-profit programs face criticism for low graduation rates and questionable recruitment practices, the recent alumna says she was satisfied with her education.
“I had to consider a program where I could work and go to school, and I could jump right in,” she says.
She also considered San Diego State University but says the application required more preparation. She was able to apply and start at the University of Phoenix almost instantly.
Even as enrollment in online, for-profit programs falls, some students like Jackson still find value in pursuing these degrees. Experts say quality varies in the sector, just as it does among online programs at public and nonprofit private universities.
[Explore ways to vet a for-profit online program.]
“I don’t know if the corporate designation alone really tells you much” about overall quality of an education, says David Deming, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education who researches for-profits. “I’d look more at the substance of the school and what it’s offering.”
Though prospective online learners should evaluate programs individually, they should know these four facts about online, for-profit education to determine if it’s right for them.
1. The application process is often less competitive than at public and private universities. As Jackson experienced, admission to an online, for-profit program was easier and quicker than it is at a traditional university, either on-ground or online.
In many cases, online programs are less competitive than on ground because physical space constraints typically don’t limit enrollment, says Kevin Kinser, professor and head of the education policy studies department at Pennsylvania State University, who studies for-profit schools. But this is even more so the case among for-profits, he says.
At public and private nonprofit universities, “There’s more of a tradition of selectivity in admissions, in making sure students have the ability to succeed in the online environment, that may result in there being a more restrictive admission policy compared with the for-profits,” Kinser says.
Many online, for-profit undergrad and some graduate programs have open admission, meaning those who meet specific requirements are generally admitted, experts say. That’s the case for programs at all levels at the for-profit Kaplan University, which offers online and on-campus programs, says Sara Sander, dean and vice president of the school’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
This approach makes sense for for-profits because they make more money by enrolling more students, Kinser says.
Deming, from Harvard, says for-profits might also attract those who find the application process more complex, like first-generation college students.
2. Some have close connections to employers. Though employers overall hold mixed opinions about online, for-profit programs, many for-profits foster relationships with companies to make jobs more accessible to alumni and help shape their curriculum.
[Learn how employers view online, for-profit bachelor’s degrees.]
Kaplan, for example, partners with companies that provide externships for students, Sander says. These companies then might send their employees to Kaplan to advance their careers.
The University of Phoenix also collaborates with employers to determine what industry-specific skills to teach students, says Ruth Veloria, executive dean of the business school.
“We are very focused on that career relevance in the content,” she says.
These employer relationships used to be very common among for-profits, and then for a while “sort of faded away,” Kinser says. Now they are becoming popular again.
“Institutions are being held accountable for the employment of their students after they graduate in ways they weren’t previously,” Kinser says.
3. Online, for-profit programs are more likely to be nationally than regionally accredited.Many experts say employers prefer degrees from regionally-accredited schools, as do reputable public and private universities – which are usually regionally accredited – when it comes to course credits, if a student transfers.
Some major for-profits do have regional accreditation, however, Kinser says.
Applicants should determine which organization accredits an online program – information that usually can be found online – and see what other schools they accredit before enrolling, Deming says.
“I think it’s fair to say, if schools are not regionally accredited, it’s because they couldn’t get regionally accredited, and so they’re only nationally accredited,” he says.
[Discover what to ask before enrolling in a for-profit online program.]
4. Students may be less likely to develop a regional job network. While career supportvaries among online, for-profit programs, these institutions may be less likely to provide students with the local job connections they might get through public or private universities, whether on campus or online.
“Public and private nonprofits tend to be very focused in a particular community and have long histories in that community,” which might benefit students looking for a job where they’re living, Kinser says. Many of today’s online students, he says, pick programs based near their home for access to on-campus resources.
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