How to Tell the Difference Between a Factory College and an Educational Institution

People are always encouraged to increase their earning power, and the most well known way to do this is through college education. So it’s especially distressing that so many disadvantaged young people — people who believe they’re doing the smart thing by enrolling in college to train for careers in a field of their liking — are ending up disillusioned, in debt and without the job skills they had counted on. To prevent this, one must understand the difference between low quality “factory” colleges and ones that are properly accredited.

Evidence increasingly suggests that some for-profit colleges are taking students — and taxpayers — for a ride. Drawing up to 90 percent of their revenue from several government programs intended to help low-income students cover their tuition, some of these schools deliver questionable degrees, exhibit extraordinarily high dropout rates and loan-default rates, and charge tuition rates that are far higher than those at public community colleges. Let’s examine this further.

Recently we’ve read about several people graduating from Minnesota School of Business only to discover that their sought-after criminal justice degree wasn’t accredited in Minnesota and wouldn’t qualify them for a job as police officers. Moreover, credits weren’t transferable, and debt from student loans had left them worse off financially than before they had enrolled. Sadly, these are not isolated cases.

When it comes to sifting through colleges, students should make ranking reports their best friend. First and foremost, ranking reports come with detailed data to support their findings. U.S. News in particular includes detailed statistics in convenient tables and lets the reader compare individual schools. While much of this data may be available from the schools or in a variety of college brochures, it’s certainly convenient to have it all in one place digitally. In addition, although data collection methods are often criticized, the editors of these reports make an effort to ensure that statistics are reported comparably – something that might not happen when comparing numbers taken directly from individual school publications.

All post-secondary institutions (including Capitalized Universities) that participate in Federal financial aid programs are mandated by the law to report part of their data to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). This is the Department of Education’s main data source on universities and an invaluable tool for prospective students. Participation in IPEDS is a requirement for all of the educational institutions that were eligible for Title IV federal student financial aid programs, such as Pell Grants or Stafford Loans. Without IPEDS data they simply don’t qualify for Federal money.

The statistics that come with the rankings also suggest topics that need to be further researched in more detail. For example, a student might find that a school they are interested in has an unusually low percentage of freshmen who return for sophomore year compared to similar schools; this is a potential red flag and one would wish to find out more about this issue during visits or other research. Even for those who are willing to ignore the overall rank, it can be helpful to do background checks on figures such as “Average graduation rate.”

In recent years more and more students are opting to get their degree from an online institution for a variety of reasons – affordability, flexibility and attainability. When looking for an online college to enroll in, the most important thing to verify is whether the school is accredited. There has been an increased number of colleges being excluded from the U.S. Department of Education’s database of accredited postsecondary institutions and programs, so be sure to check that regularly. This database also features in-depth information on regional and national accrediting agencies that are recognized by the U.S. secretary of education as reliable authorities on the quality of education. Many online colleges are not accredited, and many legitimate schools are either too new to be granted accreditation or they simply choose not to pursue it. If you discover that the online college you are interested in is not accredited, then you should investigate further to verify that it is a legitimate school and offers a quality education. According to a Peterson’s article, called “Colleges’ and Universities’ Accreditation Credentials”, it’s best to start your research with the regional accrediting agency that covers the state where the school is located. They can verify if the school has a legitimate charter. Next, check to see whether there are specialized accrediting agencies that handle the program you’re interested in.

Accreditation is important for the quality and reputation of online colleges, but it also affects your degree in the long run. Receiving a degree from an unaccredited college can affect the transfer of your credits to other schools and it might even pose an issue with some employers and companies that don’t recognize it as a valid certification.

One of the main criteria for obtaining accreditation is demonstrating financial responsibility. Schools with poor finances are rejected by accrediting bodies and prohibited from participating in federal and state financial aid program. There have been examples of colleges losing their accreditation and ability to offer financial aid after declaring bankruptcy.

What this means is that the best schools are aware of the need to help their students identify sources of financial aid, and obtain it. Since it is well known that around 85% of high school seniors learn about financial aid from their high school counselors, top educational institutions make their financial aid data widely available, particularly via the internet.

However, with the rise of private, for-profit colleges, some of which have dubious quality, a lot of non-approved accreditors have emerged on the scene. Students are best to make sure that the programs they are interested in are recognized by approved, government-controlled accreditors. To help with this effort, several states have established guidelines for determining that an accreditor is to be trusted.

Quality colleges have easy-to-navigate sites with eligibility and application information for a wide range of scholarships, grants and loans, including state and private financial aid, as well as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) readily available. Aware that many students require financial help to attend and succeed at their school, the best educational institutions provide assistance with determining eligibility and completing applications as well. By working towards informing students of the opportunities for paying for and attending their school, quality colleges ensure a diverse and dynamic student base.

Another important factor to consider when choosing a suitable college is whether the income earned as a result of the college degree is worth the tuition paid in receiving it. Savvy college bound students consider ROI, or Return on Investment, carefully when choosing a school and a program. One of the most important factors in the return on tuition investment is future job placement. Many fail to realize that the best job placement efforts begin when the student starts college and chooses a major. The best programs offer academic guidance that steers students into fields where jobs are attainable and available.