Dollars & Sense: Why Students Should Avoid Major For-Profits for Associates Degrees

Edit: This post was initially written in spring 2015. It has been updated to reflect current tuition rates for spring 2017.

I recently stumbled across an individual in my online circles who had noted on her resume that she earned an Associate of Arts & Sciences degree from a big name for-profit online university. I couldn’t fathom why anyone in their right mind would do such a thing. On the positive side, the school is regionally accredited, but it certainly comes with a cost. I mean a BIG cost. There are clearly more affordable options, so I am perplexed as to why anyone would choose otherwise.

Upon finding this resume, I decided to do a little digging. As a community college instructor, I know students can earn the same degree at my institution for far less than at an online for-profit school. But what are the numbers? In an age of information, anyone can acquire tuition rates for schools. Because an Associates Degree generally covers the lower level general education courses, they’re all very similar. Yes, there are applied sciences degrees that do differ, but those are not usually designed for transfer. In looking at the good ol’ fashioned bread and butter Associates Degree, one can see that there are certainly affordable options when comparing similar online programs across schools.

Let’s start by examining my home institution. I teach full-time at Rappahannock Community College in Virginia. A quick look at our tuition and fees page shows that tuition for a Virginia resident is $137.75 per credit. With 61 credits in the degree program, that works out to be $8,402.75 in total tuition, not including fees. Since we’re talking about online programs, it’s certainly feasible for an out-of-state student to enroll. Tuition for that individual would be $314.35 per credit, or $19,175.35 for the degree. The out-of-state rate may seem ridiculous compared to the in-state rate, but it is still less than some other schools out there.

The University of Phoenix is the largest provider of online education in the United States. It’s also one of the most expensive. It’s tuition and fees page provides the following data. For the Associate of Arts in General Studies program, tuition is $410 per credit, and at 60 credits, comes to a total of $24,600. As you can see, that’s clearly more expensive than attending a community college as an out-of-state online student.

Kaplan is another major online institution. Like the University of Phoenix, it offers the Associates Degree. The difference with Kaplan, however, is that it uses a quarter credit hour system rather than a semester credit hour system. (A three credit course in a semester system would be equivalent to a 4.5 credit course in a quarter system.) Because of the differences in the credit hours, an Associate degree at Kaplan is 90 credits. According to Kaplan’s tuition and fees page, the degree would cost $33,390, which works out to be $371 per quarter credit hour. Ouch!

It should be noted, however, that not all for-profit schools that provide online instruction are ridiculously expensive. The American Public University System, which divides into American Public University and American Military University, is more friendly to wallets. They offer various Associate Degrees which are $270 per credit. At 61 credits, that’s $16,470. That’s less than the rate of an out-of-state student at my institution and less than half that of Kaplan.

The question still remains, however. Why would anyone enroll in a major online for-profit university for an Associates Degree? That’s why we have community colleges! I can sing the praises of RCC until the cows come home, but we are certainly not the only community college in the country that offers online options. Consider Clovis Community College out of New Mexico. Clovis is one of the most affordable schools in the nation. At $111 per credit hour for an out-of-state student, it’s a logical choice. For a 62 credit degree, the cost would be $6,882. That’s about a sixth of the cost of Kaplan’s degree, and a little more than a fourth of the cost of University of Phoenix. Furthermore, if a student enrolled online at Clovis full-time, the cost would be even less, as 13-18 credits are charged at the same rate as 12 credits.

I still don’t know, and probably never will know, why that individual chose such an expensive school for a degree she could’ve earned elsewhere for far less. Perhaps she got sucked in by advertising. Perhaps she didn’t shop around. What I do know is that there ARE options, and as consumers, we need to be aware of them. If we can shop around for cars, surely we can, and should, do the same for an online degree program. With student loan debt soaring, prospective students need to be aware of their options. Why not pay less?

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Why Choose Community College?

As a professor at a community college, it’s no secret that I have a bias when asked about community colleges. The truth, however, is that during my teenage years I was like many of my peers, in that I thought community colleges were the “back up schools” for kids that didn’t get into a “real” school. My opinions started to change when I got into my junior year of high school. As a part of the school’s Dual Enrollment program, I was enrolled in HIS 121-122 US History in partnership with Rappahannock Community College. As a result of this course, I started to build a college transcript.

During my senior year, I enrolled in ENG 111-112 English Composition through the Dual Enrollment program, and my friend and I decided to take Calculus at the college independently of school. Several of us also took Statistics through the college as a type of independent study class. I crashed and burned on the latter, due to a variety of issues, but I was rather successful with the other courses.

Anyone in high school who is college bound knows that their senior year is THE year in which  students apply for college and find out if they were accepted or rejected. I looked forward to heading off to the College of William and Mary the following year. Imagine my surprise when I was put on the waiting list. Despite being 4th in my class, having a plethora of activities and leadership roles, I got waitlisted. Ouch! At that point I started to consider going to community college, but its stigma had my peers encouraging me to apply elsewhere. I did, and ended up being accepted to Christopher Newport University. As it turned out, getting rejected from W&M turned out to be one of the best things that could’ve happened. CNU, which I had never considered, was definitely the school for me.

Thanks to my participation in community college classes, along with AP Exam scores, I started my journey at CNU classified as a sophomore. I could have finished in 3 years, but instead I decided to take 12 credits per semester to ease myself into the college experience. It turns out that was a great plan.

Now, years later, I’ve graduated from CNU, earned two graduate degrees, and have started a PhD program, all while working as a full-time educator and raising two great kids with my wife. I can only imagine how things might have turned out had I never participated in those community college courses. I can imagine, however, what life today would be like without community college courses.

While community colleges may have a stigma that they are not as good as a four year school, one must remember that stigmas aren’t always true. For many, community college is the only way to go. With tuition increasing each year, community colleges remain a viable option. With Americans readily buying store brand goods and generic drugs, we know that items like Acetaminophen and Tylenol are the same thing. We are willing to buy Acetaminophen because it’s less expensive and does the same thing. So, too, are community college classes. When taking a US History course at a community college, for example, you’ll be learning the same content that you’d be learning at a four year school at a fraction of the cost.

Another benefit of community college is the faculty-student ratios. Perhaps you’ve seen a movie or television show in which a college student goes to class in a large auditorium with hundreds of students in the same class. As a community college professor, I know my students. I know their names. I’ve chatted with them outside of class, in the hallway, over social media. I can write recommendation letters like I’ve known them my whole life. At larger schools in which students might merely be a number, can we say the same?

One of the best things I’ve observed during my time as a community college faculty member is the amount of diversity among the student body, especially when it comes to age. At my college younger students still take up the vast majority of seats, but the number of older students is significant. These individuals represent those who have lived and experienced. Sometimes they’ve even lost. But they often offer valuable advice to their younger colleagues. While the 18 year old kid might enroll because Mommy or Daddy told him to, the 4o year old woman sitting next to him in class might be there because she’s trying to rectify poor decisions from her past or to gain additional credentials to get ahead at work. Whatever the reason, older students often serve as a beacon of light for my younger ones. I’ve seen them on countless occasions explaining how important school is to the youth. I’ve seen them sharing how to take notes and taking the lead on group activities. And I love when they provide their own memories and experiences in class. Hearing a 65 year old African-American woman share her memories of the Civil Rights Movement is far more powerful than anything I can pull out of a textbook.

While it might seem hypocritical of me to push community college when I went straight to a four year school, I’ve learned quite a bit since I graduated high school. After all, aren’t we supposed to reflect on our experiences? Aren’t we supposed to learn from the experiences of others? Community College gives us, gives me, the chance to do that.


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