Private career colleges deserve closer scrutiny and support

These colleges fill an educational and economic need that is not being met by public post secondary institutions

Maddie Di MuccioWith the fallout in certain economic sectors, most notably Alberta’s oil production, many displaced workers need to return to school to seek a second career. For many, a private career college is the most flexible option.

It is estimated that one in 15 post-secondary students will rely on a private career college education to earn a diploma or a certificate. Yet, these schools receive no taxpayer funds, unlike public post secondary education which is heavily subsidized.

A private career college offers many potential students a flexible, eight- to 12-month program that can get an unemployed person back to work sooner. These shorter, intensive programs are significantly more attractive to those who need to support a family.

Many new immigrants opt for private career colleges for similar reasons. Although they may have work experience in their place of origin, they often find that Canadian employers are seeking some local post-secondary education on their job application. Again, the shorter program offered by the private career colleges addresses their needs.

Private career colleges have faced criticism that (without public subsidy) tuitions are too expensive. With shorter program, the education students receive from these programs has also been called second-rate by critics.

According to the Alberta Association of Private Colleges, 86 per cent of graduates from private colleges found skilled jobs six months after graduation. That compares to 90 per cent of graduates from public colleges. Other studies show that private college graduates are finding lower paying jobs than their public college counterparts.

Despite the controversy with private career colleges, provinces have to acknowledge that they fill an educational and economic need that is not being met by public post secondary institutions.

There are two main differences between the private career colleges and the public post secondary institutions. The first is these colleges are vocational, with a strict focus on finding employment. The private career college program is supposed to teach skills that will enable a graduate to easily find a job.

The second difference from public post-secondary institutions is that private career colleges have little or no government oversight over the quality of their programs.

Caveat emptor (buyer beware) to any student thinking of enrolling in these courses. Students enrolled with Everest College in Ontario, for example, have discovered since it went bankrupt in 2015 and closing 14 campuses that a lot of money and debt can be invested into a private career college program – which ultimately ended up being of little value post graduation.

As an advocate of school choice, I do not think it’s acceptable to demand that these private career colleges be shut down or brought under strict government control. By the nature of free market competition, private career colleges will either improve their outcomes or risk going out of business. That’s the rule of free enterprise.

Yet consumer protection laws need to be enforced to ensure that students of private career colleges are receiving the education they have paid for.

The Government of Ontario reports that students of private career colleges default on their student loans at a much higher rate (21 per cent) compared to public colleges (13 per cent) or universities (five per cent). It’s speculated this is because the post graduation employment rate is worse for private college diploma or certificate holders than their public post secondary counterparts.

On the student loan default issue alone, the government has justification to demand that certain education standards are met to protect its own investment – but they don’t.

One way to enhance the quality of education delivered by these private programs would be for provincial governments to establish standards that would allow private college courses to be accepted towards a public college diploma or certificate. This would allow greater flexibility for many students to upgrade their private college education in order to improve their job prospects or boost the value of their post secondary diploma.

Maddie Di Muccio is a former town councillor in Newmarket, Ont. Often appearing on talk radio and TV, she focuses on educational and political reform.

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