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6 Questions to Ask about Your Child’s College Choice

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Money, Jobs, & College

A recent action by the U.S. Department of Education points up the fact that not all colleges are created equal. If your child is headed off to college this fall, make certain he or she is going to the right sort of place.

The Department of Education closed down a group of technical colleges run by Corinthian Colleges under several different names in several different states. These colleges, like others run by other organizations, offer certificate programs and technical degrees in computer science, web design, medical services, fashion, culinary arts and other fields. The courses included in these programs typically don’t earn actual college credit and are not transferable to other colleges. These organizations usually promote their programs by implying a guaranteed job after graduation. These organizations are almost always run on a for-profit basis.

The problem with these colleges are many. They tend to exist by encouraging students to get federal student loans to cover tuition costs, so that these colleges are supported by this federal aid. It’s in these colleges’ best financial interest to enroll as many students as possible and to keep them enrolled as long as possible, to maximize the aid dollars flowing in to their coffers. It’s not in these colleges interests to actually graduate students or to spend much money making certain graduates get jobs.

This is why the Department of Education is interested. The federal government wants to know that financial aid money is being used for students, not to support colleges. And it wants to know that colleges have a solid graduation rate. It tracks these numbers for all colleges, both non-profit and for-profit, that use federal financial aid as part of students’ aid package. Most of the problem colleges tend to be among those that are for-profit and that do not offer transferable college credit in bachelors’ degree programs.

So help your teen be a wise consumer. A college’s for-profit status isn’t necessarily a stopper (I myself am faculty at a for-profit university). Every college’s aim is to make money, whether it’s for-profit or non-profit. It’s how that money is made that matters. Here’s what to watch for:

  1. Do credits transfer? If your child decides she wants to quit one school and attend another one – maybe a community college – will her credits be accepted on a one-for-one basis by the new school? If credits don’t transfer, your child is trapped. She won’t be able to continue at a different school without losing all the time and money she’s invested in the first one.
  2. Do the credits earn a real degree? A “real degree” is an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree that can be used as a step to a higher degree sometime in the future. Your child’s associate’s degree earned at a community college can be applied as the first two years of a bachelor’s degree at another school. A bachelor’s degree is accepted as the prerequisite to enrolling in a graduate degree program later. Make sure your child won’t have to do things twice because the first “degree” didn’t count.
  3. Is the college accredited by one of the regional accrediting agencies? If you’re in doubt, check the website of any university or small non-profit college in your area: what accreditation do they say they have? Then check the website of the for-profit college your child is considering: is it accredited by the very same organization as the conventional colleges claim? It should be.
  4. What is the graduation rate? All schools keep this figure, so find out. A college’s graduation rate is the percentage of students who begin a program and actually complete the program. Keep in mind that graduation rate should be time-limited. A two-year program should graduate most of the students who begin it within two years.
  5. What do you get for your money? Disbelieve any college’s claim of full employment by its graduates. Any college that actually promotes its employment rate is suspect, since the very best schools never track this. Instead, talk to people already working in the field. Do they know anyone who graduated from the college your child is considering? Would a certificate or degree from that college be a point in a prospective employee’s favor or would it represent a reason not to hire that person?
  6. What is the actual cost? This number is harder to find and there are hidden costs to attending every college: books, room and board, athletic fees and so on.  But compare tuition, dig up hidden fees, and calculate how long your child will be enrolled before graduating. What is the total likely to be?

Your child might be counting on attending a for-profit technical school because that’s where his friends are going or because those schools seem like they’ll be more fun or more interesting than more conventional schools. Remember that these schools are marketed to seem like that.

Do your homework and help your child really sort things out. Starting at the wrong school wastes time and money and it discouraging.

Starting at the right school is what every student wants.



© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.