An influx of private for-profit colleges in Oklahoma City is leading to concerns by policymakers and higher education officials about tuition costs, recruiting tactics and the value of the degrees the institutions grant.
Since 1995, 17 new college campuses have opened in the Oklahoma City metro area — an average of one new campus per year — bringing the total number of campuses in the area to 37. The new campuses include 10 for-profit colleges. The other seven are satellite locations where institutions that were already established offer off-site courses.
Private, for-profit colleges and universities with small Oklahoma City campuses include multistate corporations such as the University of Phoenix and Vatterott College. Also known as proprietary colleges, such schools often operate out of storefronts. Spokesmen for these institutions say they are a valuable resource, offering flexibility in location and schedules that would otherwise be unavailable.
However, despite their success in Oklahoma and nationwide, for-profit colleges have drawn criticism.
In July, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, released a report that highlighted a series of failures at these schools, including a disproportionately high rate of student loan defaults.
According to the report, students at for-profit colleges represent 13.2 percent of the nation's college students. But that minority accounts for 46.8 percent of the country's student loan defaults. Nearly a quarter of all students who attend for-profit colleges default on their federal student loans within three years of leaving school.
The report criticizes the industry for a pattern of high tuition and fees. According to the report, average tuition at a for-profit school is about six times that of a comparable community college and twice as high as at a four-year public school.
The report also questioned the value of the instruction at those schools. In particular, it cites the Apollo Group, parent company of the University of Phoenix, as making heavy use of so-called directed studies, or courses in which “students pursue independent study with more minimal instruction supervision.” The report singles out the university's Oklahoma City campus as having 40 percent of its students in directed studies.
The trend of high tuition and fees holds true in Oklahoma City, where for-profit colleges tend to be considerably more expensive than their public counterparts. According to records from the National Center for Education Statistics, students who received financial aid at the University of Phoenix's Oklahoma City location paid an average net price of $20,567 during the 2010-11 academic year.
Net price is the average amount a student can expect to pay for tuition, fees, books and other expenses, after federal, state, local and institutional financial aid are factored in.
Some for-profit college students saw higher net prices. Students at Platt College's two Oklahoma City campuses paid an average net price of about $22,000 per year, while students at the college's Moore campus paid more than $27,000. Students at DeVry University's Oklahoma City campus also paid an average net price of about $27,000.
By comparison, students at the University of Oklahoma paid an average net price of just over $15,000 during the 2010-11 academic year. Oklahoma State University students paid just shy of $13,000, and University of Central Oklahoma students paid about $11,700.
The price was even lower at community colleges. Rose State College students paid an average net cost of $9,600 during the same year, while students at Oklahoma City Community College paid $7,297. Redlands Community College students saw an average net price of $4,822 — less than a quarter what University of Phoenix students paid.
Students at for-profit schools also tend to depend more heavily on student loans and other financial aid. During the 2010-11 academic year, every full-time, first-year undergraduate student at the University of Phoenix's Oklahoma City campus took out federal student loans to pay for school, with the average student taking out nearly $9,000 in loans.
At OU, just 40 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates took out federal loans during the same year. The average student borrowed just $5,500 in federal loans.
Policymakers and higher education officials also have criticized the for-profit education industry for aggressive recruiting practices, particularly among veterans who are seeking to use their Post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits to go to school.
In April, President Barack Obama signed an executive order cracking down on deceptive recruiting practices targeting student veterans, especially among for-profit colleges. The order cites examples of colleges recruiting veterans with serious brain injuries and emotional vulnerabilities without providing academic support and counseling.
The order lays out new requirements for colleges, including rules regarding disclosure of costs. The order also directs the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to trademark the term “G.I. Bill” to allow education officials to crack down on for-profit colleges that use the term deceptively in their recruiting materials.
Terry Britton, president of Rose State College in Midwest City, said he's concerned about the influx of for-profit schools. The adult students such schools recruit could fare better at community colleges such as Rose State, he said, which also cater to adult students and tend to be far less expensive than for-profit colleges.
For-profit schools have a place in higher education when they offer programs that aren't available elsewhere, Britton said. But he criticized the high cost and high level of student debt at the proprietary colleges.
“We have far too many students in the for-profit sector who run up extreme debt at such institutions,” he said.
Although most offer classroom-based courses as well, for-profit colleges often make heavy use of online classes. The Arizona-based University of Phoenix, the largest university in the U.S., reports nearly 70 percent of its students are enrolled in online courses.
Serving OKC metro
In the Oklahoma City area, 10 for-profit campuses have opened since 1995. Among these, Platt College has the most campuses, with two locations in Oklahoma City and one in Moore. The college also has campuses in Tulsa, Lawton and Dallas.
Other for-profit colleges that have opened campuses in Oklahoma City since then include the University of Phoenix, Vatterott College, Brown Mackie College and DeVry University.
Troy Thomas, the campus director for University of Phoenix locations in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, said schools such as his can be a valuable resource for students.
Thomas said he earned a master of business administration degree from the university. When he began attending the university in 1999, the Oklahoma City location had only been open about a year. For him, he said, faculty members who worked in the field were a major selling point.
For example, he said, one of his economics instructors worked for Chesapeake Energy Corp. That instructor spoke with students about his own industry and how certain economic factors affected it. That style of instruction helped show the real-world application of abstract concepts, Thomas said.
Besides the faculty, Thomas said, the university offers a degree of flexibility that's critical for working adult students. Students can take courses on campus one night a week, or enroll in classes online.
The university also offers a strong support structure, which is helpful for students who need help navigating the college process. Each student has a so-called graduation team that includes an enrollment adviser, finance adviser and academic counselor. The university also has relationships with about 1,000 companies nationwide that hire its graduates, he said.
“We want to help students understand what they want to do from the pre-enrollment phase all the way through the academic journey,” he said.