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Black Students Boosting Enrollments in Proprietary Schools

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At a time when lagging college-going rates for blacks are attracting the attention of worried educators, another trend has gone largely unnoticed: the growth, over the past decade, in the number of minority students seeking postsecondary training in proprietary "career schools.''

Although data are scarce, and any relationship between the two trends remains undocumented, most observers agree that such schools are increasingly popular among minority students.

The programs, they say, appeal to those wishing to acquire skills to enter the job market soon after leaving high school, rather than pursue the lengthier, and perhaps more intimidating, route of higher education.

Most available statistics indicate that enrollment in the approximately 6,000 private, for-profit career schools nationwide--which train students for an array of occupations, from barber to welder to computer technician--has risen sharply during this decade. And, of the schools' current combined enrollment of about 1.5 million, black and other minority students are thought to constitute a disproportionate number.

"While traditional sectors are losing in the participation of minority students in education programs, we strongly believe minority participation in programs in private career schools and colleges is increasing,'' said Jerry W. Miller, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Schools, which represents about 650 for-profit schools that prepare some 750,000 students for jobs in business, culinary arts, and health-related fields.

The strongest indicator of the growth in minority enrollment, Mr. Miller said, is the sharp increase in this decade in the number of proprietary-school students receiving Pell Grants, the chief form of federal aid for low-income students.

Between 1980 and 1984, the number of Pell Grant recipients in proprietary schools rose by 124 percent, to 578,000, according to Joseph Marx, an analyst for the Southern Regional Education Board. By comparison, he said, the number of recipients in public colleges rose by just 1.6 percent during that period.

And in Pennsylvania, one of the few states able to provide such figures, the proportion of black first-year students in proprietary schools more than tripled between 1976 and 1984, according to Jerry Davis, director of research for the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency.

In 1984, he said, 22 percent of all black first-year students enrolled in postsecondary institutions were in proprietary schools, compared with just 7 percent in 1976.

Cause for Concern?

While experts on minority education acknowledge that the data are inadequate, and are open to differing interpretations, many of them suggested in recent interviews that disproportionate minority participation in proprietary schooling could represent a danger.

If enrollment by blacks in such programs continues to rise, while their college-going rate remains stagnant or falls, the gap in socioeconomic status between races could widen, argued Reginald Wilson, director of the office of minority concerns of the American Council on Education.

According to the A.C.E., black undergraduate enrollment decreased from 10.1 percent in 1980 to 9.5 percent in 1984.

"When you have a society occupationally divided along distinct ethnic lines, the implications are very unhealthy,'' Mr. Wilson said.

"If all the elite, leadership, college-trained people are white,'' he continued, "and all the people who do service work, fix our hair, guard our borders, and fight for us are a different racial group, I have concerns about that.''

Others suggested that proprietary schools offer students, at best, short-term opportunities, and at worst, no help at all.

Such schools are a "temporary, stopgap measure,'' contended Rafael Valdivieso, vice president for research for the Hispanic Policy Development Project. "They don't really help your long-term career development.''

Added Gary Orfield, director of the University of Chicago's Metropolitan Opportunity Project: "I worry about kids who go to sleazy [schools], incur debt burdens, and don't learn anything.''

Signithia Fordham, professor of anthropology at the University of the District of Columbia, suggested that the trend, if confirmed, would "validate'' her widely discussed findings that many able black students do poorly in school because they equate academic achievement with "acting white.'' (See Education Week, March 25, 1987.)

If blacks are choosing career schools over college, "it could mean that black people do not believe college will do for them what it would do for their white counterparts,'' she said. "They cut down on their effort.''

Another possibility, suggested Charles R. Thomas, president of the National Alliance of Black School Educators and an elementary-school superintendent in Chicago, is that school counselors may be steering minority students away from college and toward trade and technical schools.

"In some cases, there is prejudice,'' he said. "Counselors, not knowing what [minority students] are capable of doing, assume a vocational path.''

Benefits Seen

But there is no proof that minority enrollment in proprietary schools accounts for the decline in minority enrollment in higher education, cautioned Mr. Orfield, whose project is studying changes in employment and college attendance among minorities in five metropolitan areas.

"The fact is,'' added Faith G. Paul, a researcher for the project, "we don't know where young black males are going'' after graduation from high school.

Some educators, moreover, minimize the down-side of an increase in minority enrollment in career training, arguing that the trend merely indicates that such students are willing to take advantage of opportunities to boost their employment prospects.

"I am encouraged by the idea that African-Americans may be pursuing alternatives allowing them to augment their lifestyles in ways that may be solid and secure for them,'' said Patricia A. Ackerman, president-elect of the black educators' alliance.

Rather than endorse one type of postsecondary institution or another, added DeAnna Beane, director of education for the National Urban Coalition, educators should advise students to choose whatever option will best fulfill their potential.

"It is incumbent upon us to make them aware of the full range of options, and to make sure they have the resources to take advantage of the options,'' she said.

And Regina Manley, coordinator of postsecondary guidance for the Chicago Public Schools, strongly disputed the suggestion that guidance counselors may push minority students toward trade schools rather than college.

"We urge them to make a choice that would give them the greatest flexibility down the line,'' she said.

Career schools are attractive, educators say, because they are able to tailor their curricula to the job market, and typically offer intensive courses leading to a training certificate in six to nine months--less than half the amount of time it would take to receive an associate degree from a community college.

Such training programs also exclude academic courses, which many students may not find useful or enjoyable, according to Wellford W. Wilms, an assistant professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles who has conducted extensive research on career schools.

'Return on Investment'

"A lot of kids, particularly from low-income or minority backgrounds, find community colleges extensions of schools they were already in and weren't happy with,'' he said.

Proprietary schools offer a "quick turnaround on a student's investment,'' observed Mr. Thomas of the black educators' alliance.

"Their return is much more immediate than the return would be in a four-year college situation,'' he added.

Low-income students often cannot afford to forgo income for long periods of time, added Thomas G. Mortenson, senior research associate at the American College Testing Program.

"For poor people, opportunity costs prevail in enrollment decisions,'' he said.

Tuition Is Higher

Mr. Mortenson noted, however, that tuition at proprietary schools tends to be much higher than at community colleges and public four-year institutions, because career schools receive no state subsidies, must pay taxes, and are designed to earn profits.

In 1986, tuitions at proprietary schools averaged about $4,000 a year, compared with $704 at two-year public colleges, according to the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges.

But financial aid helps reduce students' out-of-pocket costs, added Mr. Wilms. About 60 percent of students at accredited proprietary schools receive federal student aid, including Pell Grants, which provide annual awards of up to $2,100, and guaranteed student loans.

Proprietary-school students generally do not receive aid from other federal programs, such as college work-study aid or supplemental grants, according to William C. Clohan, general counsel of the independent-schools association. However, he added, about 30 states provide aid to proprietary-school students.

In New York, the growth in the number of proprietary-school students receiving state scholarships prompted the state legislature last year to tighten state regulation over the schools' recruitment techniques and financial management, according to the state department of education.

'Free Market'

Though ignored or regarded with skepticism by many educators in academic institutions, private career schools have long been a part of the postsecondary-education world. Their growth mushroomed after World War II, when returning soldiers used their G.I. Bill benefits to learn job skills.

Enrollment in proprietary schools has grown in this decade for similar reasons, according to William H. Kolberg, president of the National Alliance of Business.

"The free market works in education, too,'' he said. "Students can figure out where the jobs are.''

The schools provide "a cost-effective way to get skills,'' he continued. "Students are attracted to something that appears to point that way.''

Proprietary schools, added Bruce M. Carnes, acting undersecretary in the U.S. Education Department, are "offering something that is more attractive to a number of students that colleges and universities are not offering.''

The boom in career-school enrollment has led the department's Center for Education Statistics, for the first time, to include proprietary schools in its annual survey of postsecondary institutions, according to Susan Hill, a statistician in the center.

"So many more students are enrolling in proprietary schools,'' she said. "Institutions of higher education are enrolling a smaller and smaller percentage of students going on to postsecondary institutions.''

The center's new "integrated postsecondary education data system,'' which will replace the "higher-education general information survey,'' will be released this September, she said.

Growth in Urban Areas

Educators attempting to track minority enrollment point out that the fastest-growing proprietary schools are in inner cities, where they are likely to serve a significant minority clientele.

In New York State, for example, business schools in urban areas have been expanding at a fast pace over the past decade, while trade schools in rural areas, which tend to enroll white students, have been closing in recent years, according to Michael King, supervisor of operations for the state department of education's bureau of proprietary-school supervision.

Enrollment in the Katherine Gibbs Schools Inc. chain of schools, which offer business training in 11 East Coast locations, has been growing in inner cities, according to Eleanor Vreeland, the company's president. A recent advertisement for the schools that appeared in The New York Times drew attention to minority enrollment by showing a black graduate of a Gibbs school, Quentin Headen, now production manager of the Boice Dunham Group.

Minority enrollment in schools operated by the Los Angeles-based United Education and Software Company, a division of National Technical Schools, has increased as the economy has improved since the recession of the early 1980's, according to Ross Graham, the company's admissions officer.

When the economy was poor, he explained, relatively well-educated white students, who had been laid off from their jobs, enrolled to learn new skills. Now, however, younger minority students who lack skills are enrolling in larger numbers.

Fewer Schools

Although enrollments have been rising, the number of proprietary schools has declined since the mid-1970's. Schools have merged or jettisoned unneeded programs, according to Mr. Miller of the independent-schools association.

In 1982, there were 9,333 career schools in the country, according to a survey by the Center for Education Statistics. Excluding correspondence schools and those associated with universities, there were 7,151 career schools, of which 5,509 were private and for-profit.

About a third of these schools provided cosmetology and barber training, and an additional 17 percent taught business and office skills, the survey found. About 20 percent were vocational-technical and trade schools, 16 percent trained hospital and allied-health workers, and 11 percent were flight schools.

While most are small, family-owned businesses, others are part of large corporations. Katherine Gibbs, for example, is a division of Macmillan and Company, and the Chicago-based DeVry Institutes is part of Bell and Howell.

Job Placement

Observers note that for minority students, as for all students who seek private career-oriented training, the principal measure of the value of proprietary schools is their success in placing graduates in desirable jobs.

"There are lots of stories of unscrupulous proprietary institutions,'' Mr. Carnes said. "There are a number of abuses in the proprietary-school system, where schools take advantage of individuals. Many don't, but some do.''

But because they must earn profits to survive, Mr. Wilms argued, proprietary schools must prove that they are effective, and most schools, therefore, place a premium on finding jobs for their students.

"Job placement is the acid test for proprietary schools,'' he said, adding that they generally meet that standard.

According to his research, Mr. Wilms said, graduates of proprietary schools "had about the same success as graduates of community colleges in finding jobs in fields for which they trained.''

Many barber shops and beauty salons, for example, recruit workers directly from cosmetology schools, according to James Murphy, executive director of the National Association of Accredited Cosmetology Schools. "Most kids have a job before they leave school,'' he said.

And, for minority students who lack the ability or the desire to succeed in college, argued Ms. Ackerman of the alliance of black school educators, career schools are a worthwhile alternative.

"If one is unable to obtain a four-year degree,'' she said, "enrollment in a proprietary school assures one that one can establish a more secure life.''

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