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Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Small town paralegal in the city. Once ran a law office, now being run by one. Med mal defense litigation. I think it's growing on me.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

For-Profit College: Friend or Foe

It is hard to avoid news and blog articles these days about for-profit colleges. For the most part, these businesses are written off by academics, politicians, and many students as scams created to take advantage of potential students. I have read that for-profit colleges encourage students to take on hefty student loans for useless degree/certificate programs, then abandon the debt-laden students in the real world with a degree of little to no value, hundreds of dollars a month in re-payment, no job placement, and no hope of finding an employer who will value the student's education.

I admittedly have a difficult time conjuring sympathy for many of the students who claim they have been duped (although I am sure some have been taken advantage of despite their due diligence). Personal responsibility still requires us to make the most educated decisions we can. Look at the story of Eric Schmitt, who claims that he took out $45,000 for an Associates and a Bachelors degree at Kaplan in paralegal studies before slowly learning that the employers in his area do not value the Kaplan degree. Obviously this stinks. But my own degree in English at a state school left me with the same amount in student loans. (I should point out that the amount I borrowed was only for my last two years at an out-of-state rate after transferring from a college where I already had a full scholarship. Lots o' monies? Yes. My own bad financial decision? Absolutely.)

And with a degree in such a broad area as English and no other specialized training, your choices are either to teach at a private school, get further education and certification to teach in a public school, write books/poetry while waiting tables, find a job in copy-editing, or go to graduate school to eventually become an English professor. No one told me this when I decided on my degree. The school I paid for happily took my student loan money, and they did not even offer to help me find a job when I graduated! Also, my first college, the one where I had the scholarship, did not provide job placement. And yet, why would I expect them to? By the time I graduated, I was an adult who could ostensibly go out into the world and find a way to make a living myself. My education and degree would help me, of course, but a degree does not a great employee make (not even a degree from a brick-and-mortar not-for-profit school).

Some students have also complained of the lack of accreditation by for-profit schools. This, too, is a matter of personal responsibility. In the age of Google, and particularly for individuals who intend to take fully online classes. a simple search will bring up an institution's accreditation. Some of the issues I have heard regard the fact that the for-profit college paralegal program is not ABA-accredited. First, the ABA does not accredit but rather approves paralegal programs. Second, the ABA will neither accredit nor approve online programs of study. If you want to be thorough and check for ABA-approval, you have to look at the school's accreditation page or ask them directly. If you only ask whether they are accredited, and they are, they will only tell you they are accredited. I cannot imagine a school volunteering to tell you that it is not ABA-approved. Since there are no minimum requirements for paralegals, ABA-approval only means as much as the student and his prospective employers think it means, anyway.

As an example, I have a B.A. in English and a non-ABA-approved paralegal certificate. Neither my current employer in Memphis, TN nor my previous employer in Alabama asked whether my program was ABA-approved. In interviews where I did not accept the job, not once was I asked whether my program was ABA-approved. Obviously, depending on your area, graduation from an ABA-approved program might be more or less valued by employers. Since the paralegal world has no minimum standards across-the-board, we have to check our specific areas ourselves. Even if you find yourself in a bind after graduating from a non-ABA-approved program, or a program that is not highly valued by employers in your area, there are still things you can do to make yourself more marketable.

For instance, get certified! There are so many possibilities for certification these days! While your A.A. or B.A. might not be from an ABA-approved program, designation as certified could be look as good or even better on a resume. In fact, in my personal experience, employers have been more interested in my certification than which school I attended or my GPA.

So to end my ramblings, please potential paralegals-to-be, take responsibility for your career from the beginning. Research and make educated decisions. While for-profit colleges are not for everyone, plenty of people who do the research and make careful decisions can find them to be helpful alternatives to traditional colleges.


  1. Mel, I love seeing new posts from you because you are always a thoughtful essayist who brings new perspective to the complex issues that affect the paralegal profession today.

    I agree that perspective students should do their homework regarding *any* paralegal program these days, and surely take into consideration the competitive job market when considering a new career. Anybody can incur significant student loan obligations with no guarantee of a job upon graduation.

    Like you, I have a bachelor's degree in English, and I think that employers have liked that as evidence of strong communication skills. I also know that ABA-approved progams are not easily accessible to everyone, but that many employers have a history of hiring legal support staffers from reputable local two and four-year programs, even if they don't have the ABA approval. They are usually a much better tuition value than online programs as well.

    I also think that the reputable online programs work best for students who are already working in the legal or related fields and need the convenience of a very flexible online class schedule. Their work experience will help a great deal in the job seach - or move up the career ladder, especially if they work for an employer that has already indicated an online program satisfies its educational requirements.

    I think the problem lies with the hard sell of some for-profit online programs that appeal to people trying to make a career change or entry, usually while working an existing "dead-end" job. They are promised transferable credits, a degree that will give them highly sought after skills, and an assurance that the crazy tuition they are paying for the convenience of the program will pay off in job training that will open a lot of doors. I think the national exposes, government investigations, and decline in registration for these programs is helping prospective students make better, more informed decisions.

  2. Ugh. Getting a degree in English and not being told the "worth" of that degree is not the same as these for-profit schools being scams. The point of college is to be educated, not just so you can get a fancy job.

    Yes, people should look into for-profits being scams, but that doesn't mean the schools shouldn't also be held accountable. I mean, really? NO ONE is benefitting from these worthless schools. The government needs to step in and shut them down.

  3. I am not exactly sure that I like your recent change in my name going from "The Boss" to "my previous employer in Alabama." I am pretty sure I am offended by that!! And yes, I still read everything you write on here. Glad to see another post. Hope all is well!