ANNAPOLIS – When Katrina Kell looked for a place to finish the two years she needed for her bachelor’s degree while continuing to work full time, she found to her dismay that at most colleges it would take five years and require an arduous schedule of night courses and 16-week semesters.
So she turned to an alternative that is attracting an increasing number of students in Maryland and nationwide — for-profit universities.
“I chose the University of Phoenix (because of) the flexibility,” Kell said. “I really don’t know how I would do it any other way.”
Kell, the office manager and a clinical research associate at Fast Track Drugs & Biologics in Rockville, started her degree program at Phoenix in January and plans to graduate this summer. She said she can finish each course in five weeks and does most of her work online.
But not everyone is so happy with the entry of for-profit universities into the Maryland higher education market. About 3.5 percent of all Maryland higher education students, or nearly 11,000, now attend one of the six for-profit universities that operate in the state. That’s an increase of 2,000 in the last three years, and the competition with traditional universities has created some friction.
“There’s intense competition for the nontraditional student,” said University of Maryland, University College interim President Nicholas H. Allen. UMUC is a public university that focuses on nontraditional students, so some of its programs are in direct competition with for-profit schools.
“We’re talking about providing a public good: education,” Allen said. He said for-profit and nonprofit institutions have different focuses: “one is to make a profit, the other delivers a public good.” He said the focus of for-profit colleges is to “deliver the service or product, but their chief objective is to deliver a margin of return to their investors.”
Though they are more expensive than non-profit universities and community colleges – sometimes, significantly so – the for-profits say they thrive and prosper by efficiently delivering a service to their students without a lot of frills.
Ben Davis, director of academic affairs for the University of Phoenix’s five campuses in Maryland, said the university focuses on meeting students’ needs. “Our primary responsibility in any capitalist system is to the customer,” Davis said. “The way I give a return to my shareholders is by providing a product to my customers.”
Davis said that while public universities count on their state legislatures for funds and traditional private colleges rely heavily on contributions from their alumni, for-profit colleges depend almost entirely on tuition.
“We have to keep students and their employers happy,” Davis said.
Indeed, even public education officials acknowledge that for-profits are playing an increasingly important role.
David Sumler, an assistant secretary of Maryland higher education, predicts that for-profits and nonprofits “will come to resemble each other over the next 50 to 60 years. It will be a long-term process.”
“For-profit institutions are becoming more like traditional colleges with their use of … full-time faculty, and nonprofit institutions are coming to resemble for-profits with their increasing use of part-time faculty, flexible scheduling and entrepreneurial activities in continuing education,” Sumler said.
Demand for higher education is expected to continue to grow, Sumler said. “Obviously it would be expensive for the state to continue to build public institutions for all that growth. Some will be absorbed by for-profits.”
But these aren’t your father’s trade schools. Most offer technical courses in acquired skills, but students graduate with comprehensive degrees.
Sumler said the public and traditional universities confuse for-profit colleges with career schools, such as cosmetology or electrician schools. Such private career schools don’t grant degrees, but almost all are for-profit, which leads to the confusion, Sumler said.
The six for-profits operating in Maryland are Hagerstown Business College, TESST College of Technology, ITT Technical Institute, DeVry University, Strayer University and the University of Phoenix. None receives any state funding. A seventh, SANS Institute, will begin offering courses in February.
UMUC’s Allen expects more for-profit universities to find their way into the state.
“Given the current practices and given the aggressiveness of the for-profits, I would expect the number would probably grow,” Allen said. He emphasized that only some “of the for-profits are too aggressive in their recruiting tactics in dealing with a segment of our population that are not informed consumers.”
The costs at for-profits can be formidable. Tuition at the new ITT Tech, which has been operating for about a year, is about $9,000 a year compared with less than $5,000 at a Maryland community college. Other programs, such as a two-year graduate degree in some aspects of computer sciences, can cost as much as $28,000. Two years of graduate school at the University of Maryland, College Park costs about $16,000 for a Maryland resident, about $30,000 for an out-of-stater.
Students at for-profits are eligible for federal student aid such as Pell Grants and the GI Bill, and officials at the for-profit universities say that many of their students have their tuitions paid by their employers, and in fact are often sent to school by employers to acquire needed skills.
Like all institutions of higher education in Maryland, for-profit universities must be approved by the Maryland Higher Education Commission before they can offer degrees.
They are also accredited by regional or specialized accrediting bodies, but unlike most traditional nonprofit universities in the state, none of the for-profits operating in Maryland is accredited by Middle States Commission on Higher Education.
The University of Phoenix has been operating in Maryland since 1999 and since opening in Columbia it has expanded to four other “campuses.”
“We look like a traditional business rather than a traditional college,” said Davis, the university’s director of academic affairs. He said one of the university’s great attractions is that it can offer flexibility and accessibility to its students.
“We want the work they do to be in the classroom not in the process of going to college,” Davis said. “We try to take that outside work away from them. So their focus is on what they need to learn in the classroom.”
While there are similarities between the offerings of UMUC and colleges like the University of Phoenix, for-profit universities are very different from universities that focus on traditional 18-24-year-old students. “Nonprofits are judged by their faculty degrees and publication,” Sumler said. “For-profits are judged by whether their students get jobs.” Both need a coherent curriculum with quality instructors, but they are “driven by different motives and exist for different purposes.”