Growing For-profit Colleges Enrich Southwest Florida

Back in the day — the baby boomer’s day, let’s say, or the Greatest Generation’s day — people thought they had all the options in the world when it came to higher education. There were public and private colleges and universities, and in some places there were even community colleges.

They offered day classes, mostly. If you wanted an education, all you had to do was enroll, move to within driving range, drive to the campus, then walk into class. But enrolling and getting there, and wading into the library or perhaps signing up for time in the "computer room" — not to mention carrying on through all the hours and days and weeks and months and years it required to earn a degree, on the traditional daytime schedule — was really not that easy to do.

Now, at least across Southwest Florida from Naples north to Fort Myers and north again to Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, that reality has changed.

A cluster of highly adaptable, market-focused colleges offering certified courses of study
and degrees in higher education singularly aimed at providing graduates with jobs and the larger community with well-trained employees, has sprung up like a new and hybrid crop that can nourish many people in nontraditional scenarios.

Among those in the region, for example, are Rasmussen College based in Minnesota but with a campus in Fort Myers; Southwest Florida College; the University of Phoenix; and Impaq University.

The range of options they offer students — especially students in midcareer or in mid-career change — is almost startling. At the well-advertised University of Phoenix, for example, students can earn MBA degrees, or degrees in nursing (including a Ph.D.), criminal justice, communications and counseling, plus associate degrees in Internet technology and a range of professional certifications or teacher education credits.

At the Fort Myers campus of Rasmussen, there are day, evening, weekend and fully online degrees, with specialties in health, business, justice studies, and technology and design, according to advertisements.

Southwest Florida College’s motto is “Dreamers wanted. Keep it real,” which just about sums up what any of this new crop of job-focused institutions of higher education can do.

Although officials who speak for these universities can prove hard to reach, their online information is revealing. Because of their flexibility — because, for example, some offer students a chance to test out of courses required at more traditional institutions such as Florida Gulf Coast University — they are now attracting an increasing number of non-traditional students.

At Southwest Florida College, an online posting notes that the college is seeking applications from teachers for many positions, not only business and information technology, but early childhood and elementary education; or anatomy and physiology, along with medical and health care administration; or even the liberal arts.

Teachers are wanted who hold master’s degrees in history, English composition, math and algebra, reading, psychology and social science, as well as Spanish.

In effect, these colleges are great equalizers.

The changes, and the shifting nature of education, do not leave all students satisfied, however.
Jim McCracken, who writes about wine for Florida Weekly, earned an information technology associates’ degree from Southwest in 2003, then went back recently to polish his skills and begin working toward a bachelor’s degree in the subject. Although he was paying more than he would have at FGCU, he was also able to test out of core courses for $300, he says.

But the laboratory equipment was not state-of-the-art, and when he was promised a class that would also allow him to work, and to earn four credits, but told a month into the class that he did not qualify, he became frustrated.

“These are for-profit colleges trying to make money, and they can, but they don’t always work out for everyone,” Mr. McCracken concludes — while acknowledging that in many respects, for-profit colleges fit the bill for many careerists needing more training.

They can also fit the bill as good neighbors.

“Fort Myers has seen difficult times during this economy, and we’re dedicated to supporting its rehabilitation,” explains Michelle Keyser, the marketing manager at Rasmussen.

“Much of that commitment comes in the form of offering an education that is of high caliber and high use to the community.”

But there’s more than that.

“The other part resides in community service,” she adds. “Not only do we support organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, Relay for Life, and the Foundation for Lee County Schools, but we also have students who volunteer their time to support the community.”

These colleges and universities offer scholarships just as traditional institutions do, and manage high levels of job placement in the area.

They seem to adopt a philosophy of education aimed at suiting people’s lives — a concept that may almost seem to hearken back to the Wizard of Oz.

“Why, anybody can have a brain,” the Wizard said in the 1939 MGM production of the famous story. “That’s a very mediocre commodity. Ever pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven’t got: a diploma.”

And then a job. Which is exactly the point of the region’s for-profit colleges.

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