ERIC Identifier: ED331338
Publication Date: 1990-03-00
Author: Lee, John B. - Merisotis, Jamie P.
Source: Association for the Study of Higher Education.| ERIC
Clearinghouse on Higher Education Washington DC.| George Washington Univ.
Washington DC. School of Education and Human Development.
Proprietary Schools: Programs, Policies and Prospects.
Proprietary schools or, as they are sometimes called, "private career
schools," are not well known or understood for several reasons. First,
they have developed outside the traditional education community and are
often owned and operated by business people who are more comfortable in
the world of commerce than the education community. Second, no data are
commonly collected and reported on schools in the sector. As a result,
only scattered and inconsistent reports are available on even the simplest
census information. Third, academic researchers in the education field
have largely ignored the sector.
HOW HAVE PRIVATE CAREER SCHOOLS EVOLVED?
Colleges in the colonial era did not teach the practical arts, such
as navigation and accounting; those skills were taught by private masters,
often in their homes. Business skills, including penmanship, shorthand,
and bookkeeping, made up the bulk of early private career school curricula.
It was not until after World War II, when the needs of increasing technology
and a complex workplace began to outstrip the traditional apprenticeship
program's ability to supply the needs of industry, that proprietary schools
began to expand in the trade and technical fields.
Since World War II, the growth of private career schools has been closely
related to changes in federal student aid policy. Starting with the Veterans
Education Benefits program after World War II and continuing to today's
student aid program, proprietary school students have used government student
grants and loans. The watershed 1972 Amendments to the Higher Education
Act provided full and equal participation with traditional higher education
students. Along with that use have come concerns about the quality of the
programs offered, the way they are advertised, and the ethics of school
owners. Charges and countercharges about the appropriateness of private
career schools' participation in federal student aid programs lie at the
heart of today's increasing interest in the sector.
WHAT IS THE ROLE OF PROPRIETARY SCHOOLS AND TRADITIONAL HIGHER EDUCATION?
Private career schools differ from traditional higher education in several
important ways. Many offer programs lasting less than a year and do not
grant degrees, although nearly 300 private career schools, a sizable exception,
offer at least an AA degree. The greatest similarity, in terms of students'
characteristics and curricula, is with community colleges, which often
offer vocational education programs similar to private career schools.
The differences between private career schools and traditional colleges
and universities are more easily identified. At the core of the difference
is the goal of realizing a profit for private owners. Proprietary schools
have placed decision making in the hands of the owner, with no tradition
of faculty senate or collegial decision making. Teaching positions are
less permanent, because instructors have no tenure. Private career schools
tend to be more sensitive to market forces than traditional colleges and,
because they lack a time-consuming and limiting system of governance, can
shift quickly to meet the needs of employers and the interests of students.
Proprietary schools are less likely to have a board of trustees.
This argument cuts both ways. Critics cite private career schools' profit
motive and lack of procedures for institutional accountability as potential
causes of under-investing in the educational program and enrolling students
merely to take advantage of public student aid programs. Supporters argue
that proprietary schools have become a cost-effective way to deliver education
to a community of students that traditional colleges have not served well,
maintaining that private career schools provide diversity and energetic
competition for traditional colleges.
WHAT CURRICULA DO PRIVATE CAREER SCHOOLS OFFER?
Private career schools offer literally hundreds of programs. The majority
of students enroll in office, technology, and personal service programs.
The technical areas are dominated by auto mechanics and computer-related
fields, but courses of study run the gamut from broadcast technology to
The curricula in private career schools are more structured and oriented
toward job skills than usually found in traditional colleges. All students
in a program generally take the same sequence of courses, with a new class
starting as quickly as every two or three weeks. Much more hands-on education
is available, with less emphasis on theory than in the collegiate sector.
Programs whose students are eligible for federal aid range from 300 hours
to graduate degrees.
WHAT ARE THE OUTCOMES OF PRIVATE CAREER SCHOOL EDUCATION?
Completion rates and estimates of the number who fail to finish a program
of study vary depending on the measures used. The best estimate is that
just over 60 percent of the students enrolling in private career schools
receive a certificate or degree, compared to just over 40 percent for students
in community colleges (although some community college students never intend
to receive a certificate or a degree).
In the short run, earnings of proprietary school graduates are similar
to graduates from community college vocational programs, but little information
is available about the longer-term effects on income of attending a private
Private career school students report a high degree of satisfaction
with their education, but a higher proportion of previously enrolled students
report dissatisfaction with their education, compared with traditional
college students. They are also more likely to report periods of unemployment
than students attending other types of schools.
WHAT POLICY ISSUES AFFECT PRIVATE CAREER SCHOOL EDUCATION?
Critics contend that high student loan defaults in the sector are a
result of poor programs, citing the high correlation of sudden school closings
and default rates. On the other hand, private career schools enroll students
with higher potential risk for default compared to traditional college
students. Some analysts attribute the higher rates of default to the inherent
risk of students who face higher odds of succeeding and have less experience
with the subtleties of repaying a loan.
Charges that proprietary schools violate basic principles of fair advertising
and mislead potential students are supported by anecdotal evidence, but
no research suggests that these practices are prevalent throughout the
The increasing concern about the quality of education offered by private
career schools has led to considering the reform of state licensing and
private accreditation requirements, but the appropriate role of these two
entities in ensuring program quality is not well understood. State licensing
and oversight vary widely among the states, from perfunctory to very specific.
Licensing has three purposes: (1) to ensure applicants that a school meets
minimum education standards, (2) to protect the state's financial interests
in the school, and (3) to constrain unfair business practices.
Private accreditation was originally a voluntary activity designed to
help institutions achieve and maintain educational quality; more recently,
however, it has performed as a "gatekeeper." To participate in federal
student aid programs, a school must be accredited by an organization recognized
by the Department of Education. This dual responsibility has put new pressures
on accreditation, to help improve education and to extend regulatory constraints
on the operation of a school.
WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS?
As a newly visible and little understood participant in postsecondary
education, private career schools pose a challenge to traditional colleges
and universities in the continuing competition among schools for public
funds and students. If the questions about quality and ethics can be answered,
these schools can provide education to a new community of students not
often served by existing colleges and universities without the doubts and
criticism marking the sector today.
Apling, Richard N., and Steven R. Aleman. 1990. Proprietary Schools:
A Description of Institutions and Students. Washington, D.C.: Congressional
Friedlander, Marci Cox. 1980. Characteristics of Students Attending
Proprietary Schools and Factors Influencing Their Institutional Choice.
Cincinnati: South-Western Publishing Co.
Goodwin, David. 1989. Postsecondary Vocational Education: Final Report.
Vol. 4. Washington, D.C.: National Assessment of Vocational Education.
Wilms, Wellford W. 1976. Public and Proprietary Vocational Training:
A Study of Effectiveness. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books.
This ERIC digest is based on a new full-length report in the ASHE-ERIC
Higher Education Report series, prepared by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher
Education in cooperation with the Association for the Study of Higher Education,
and published by the School of Education at the George Washington University.