There has been a lot of talk recently about for-profit education. Most of it is negative and a lot of it is true, however there are also some good things about for profit education that is often overlooked. This post is about the good, the bad, and the ugly that I have experienced at a technical for-profit school.
Before going to a “standard” university for a “typical” 4-year institution degree and graduate school; I went to ITT-Tech (a for-profit technical school) and got 2 different associate degrees from them. One of them was in Computer Networking Systems and the other in Computer & Electronics Engineering Technology. I also worked as a lab assistant (kind of like a work-study) while I was a student there. This post is about my experiences there. I think a lot of this will translate to other people’s experience, but I am sure that many people will have had many different experiences.
The reason you go to school is to get a job, and hopefully a career. In my experience there are three parts to a career services department (for helping students get a job). 1) Helping people prepare. 2) Helping to make people aware of jobs. 3) Bringing companies into the school to meet students. I think ITT did a great job helping people prepare. ITT had a required course where they poured over ever ones resume (and cover letter) and made sure they were correct (with no typos) and did mock interviews to help people prepare for the real thing. Besides for this class, in the last semester or two of the program career services went out of their way to continuously hound people about job searching and possible openings. The only way that somebody could not get helped was by actively hiding from them. Once a week career services made a pamphlet of all the job posting for a particular degree that they knew of. These pamphlets were available for anyone to grab as well as available by email (emails started shortly before I graduated). One area that was lacking was bringing companies into the school for on-site interviews. There were some on-site interviews but not that many. The general approach was to tell people about career fairs.
In order to get the job it is important to get a solid education. This is an area where I had very mixed experiences. I had teachers that did not teach a thing, while I had other teachers that were absolutely exceptional. Many of the instructors had many years of industry experience that they could talk about as part of the class. For example when I took a class on WAN (ie. routers and firewalls) it was taught by a senior network engineer for a multi-billion dollar company who knew the material and was able to fill the class with his relevant experience, making for a great class where I learnt a lot (I am pretty sure he deviated from the “approved” curriculum.)
The number of labs and hands on activities in the programs were very good. In the case of the networking program it was great having the hands on experience with the server software and hardware. I have not seen any traditional school that gives a similar amount of hands on training. For electronics, the labs were also more than in a traditional school. However since most people in these programs go to technician jobs, and not actual engineering jobs some of the labs might not be the best fit and there are other technical skills that would be valuable for a graduate to have (creating wire harnesses, soldering (more than the quick tutorial they give), surface mount work, PCB layout, troubleshooting, practical antenna/RF stuff, etc.. While I was not in the program I think people going for programming might not see the benefit of these labs as much. In a traditional program you also get to program. I think the difference is a school like ITT gives a greater breadth of programming languages, while a standard computer science program gives a lot more advanced content (algorithms, machine learning, etc..).
Many of the instructors are great, but there are also some pretty bad ones. When I was a lab assistant there was one teacher that students hated, did not know the subject matter, and lab aids refused to work with. The school administration developed the curriculum and wanted all teachers to follow it rigidly, this included standard tests developed by ITT. We had several teachers who gave us the “test” with the solutions as a study guide to be used for the upcoming test. Most of the teachers I had that were good, ignored (or partially ignored) the rigid ITT curriculum. Three particular examples that I remember where instructors deviated from the plans and had great lessons were:
1. Building a robot since the class was interested in it and using it as a pretext to teach about DC circuits, batteries, motors, and general hackery. (The school later claimed it had a robotics club based on this activity, which was a stretch)
2. As a quiz an instructor brought in an assembled PCB with various test points that we needed to properly measure and record waveforms.
3. In a digital class the instructor taught different circuits by having the class “build” them in simulation interlaced with the lecture. Followed by building them all in lab.
Many people in the school expect to be hand-fed the information and not need to study. When they are not hand-fed they are quick to complain about the instructors (a lot faster than at a traditional school). In most classes it is easy to get an A if you do the work. The problem is the bar to get an A is really low. If you want to really learn you need to ask questions and talk to the instructors to gain some knowledge from their industry experience and background.
I think it might have changed since I was there but ITT had all of the text books custom made (from somewhere in India, I think the company was called IIT (just to confuse everyone)). The books were awful! They were many factual errors in every book. There were also many labs that had mistakes or plain did not work. There were many cases of circuits that we were supposed to build that did not have the expected result (both in simulation and on a breadboard). We all wondered if they were actually tested before putting them in the books. The grammar was also pretty bad. There were several instances where even the instructors could not understand what was written.
I did not have any online classes but I know they have moved some classes online. When I was graduating, people would often take 3 classes at a time; 2 in class and 1 online. I am not sure how effective the online classes are. In general I think it is very hard to make a good online class (I think Udacity is probably one of the best I have seen). This is good for adults with complex schedules (which is a large portion of the school), however I am not sure if online is the best from an educational perspective. The good thing is that the online classes were for the non-core classes (such as English, math, etc..) and not for the classes directly required in that profession.
So how did people get into the school? The admission department, which is arguably the most important department in the school (from the schools perspective), is very active (you have probably seen/heard all the TV and radio ads for these for-profit schools) and will try to sign up almost anything that breathes (as opposed to trying to find people who will succeed). The problem with this is that often people do not know what they are interested in, yet an admissions person will sign them up and put them in some program. These people are often not motivated in that topic, have little or no background experience, and no desire to work on this stuff at home. Many people buy into the myth (even in traditional schools) that you can just goto a few classes and get a job doing it. In many fields and especially with technology things change very fast, if you are not willing to invest in learning on your own and actively pursue knowledge on your own you will have a hard time finding a job and succeeding. One of the first courses everyone takes was an Intro to Computers. As part of this class we spent a lot of time taking computers apart. I have seen a 60 year old individuals who had never touched a computer before, struggle and succeed. I have also seen people in there 20’s, who were not motivated, fail and not learn how to take a computer apart. If you are going for a computer networking career and you can not do this class then how do you expect to succeed? I think one of the biggest problems with the school is the low bar to get in, and that admissions sets a very high career expectation for the people entering the school. Just to be clear, the admissions people I met were all really nice and good people, however the demand of the school was to accept just about everyone. I should also point out that many people who were accepted were legitimately interested and would probably succeed in their career. It is just the number of people who should not have been in a program over-shadowed the ones that were appropriately in the program.
The administration really goes out of their way to try and get people to succeed (ie. pass classes). If somebody needs help the administration will really try to push somebody along. This can be done with indirect pressure on the instructors, as well as by getting tutors for the student. When I was there the school had about 5 people who were paid by the school and available for tutoring. There was one girl who came to class stoned every day. The school went so far as to have a lab assistant sit next to her in class in order to try and keep her alert and active in class (she left the school after 2-3 quarters). If you do not show up to class for a day or two the instructors will also call you to check up on why you could not make it (A for effort, however a bit stalkerish).
In addition to education the other big complaint about for-profit schools is cost. There is no doubt that these schools can be very expensive. It looks like ITT-Tech is about $48,000 for the two year program (in 2013-14 academic year) or $24,000 per year. While University of Pittsburgh (just an example) is probably around $30,000 a year (in-state tuition + summer classes + fees + books). At the local community college (which is where many for-profit students would go if not for the for-profit school) tuition is more like $6,000 (local tuition + summer + fees + books) a year. Did I get more hands on experience and smaller classes than I would have at the community college? yes. Is it worth the large cost difference? I am not sure.
Since this is a post about education here is the final report card:
Career Services: A
In summary this post is longer then I expected but I think it sums up my experience. I think I learnt a lot while I was there, however I think a lot of that was because I was self motivated and played with servers and circuits at home. I think as in most things in life you get what you put into it, and many people who are admitted do not want to put a lot into it. I think as a result of going to ITT, my hands on skills are better than many other people who only went through the traditional schools. I also think the advantages of a for-profit technical school is based on which program you choose. For a computer networking program I think there are a lot of benefits, for a programming degree the benefits are probably a lot less. I do not regret my decision to go to a for profit technical school. If I were to make the decision again knowing what I know today I am not sure what my decision would be?
As always please leave your comments below!
Main image source: http://pixabay.com/en/money-bag-profit-gold-coins-40603/