Professional Schools Gain from Economy’s Loss

While the nation continues to grapple with soaring unemployment rates and a widespread recession, the news is anything but gloomy at private career schools all over the Washington area.

Professional schools are experiencing an increase in demand from displaced workers wanting to try their luck in other industries, such as health care, technology and green construction. Many are looking to career colleges and postsecondary schools that offer industry-specific professional and technical programs.

Enrollment at Westwood College, a career college in Annandale, has increased 42 percent, and the school is starting spring classes with the largest body of students ever during that term.

Undergraduate enrollment at career colleges in the U.S. has averaged an annual growth rate of 9.9 percent since 2003, according to the U.S. Education Department. During the 2006-07 academic year, more than 2.2 million people were enrolled at a career college, the department reported.

“The reason for the enrollment growth is it’s a great time for people to get career-focused education,” said Lauck Walton, president of Westwood’s Annandale campus. “All of my colleagues are reporting excellent enrollment growth right now.”

As a result of the enrollment increase, Westwood has expanded its facilities, increased its faculty, added student support staff and broadened its offerings, particularly in the technology field, according to Walton.

The college has new information technology bachelor’s degree programs in computer forensics and systems security.

The number of inquiries per month from prospective students has grown in the past 12 months, Walton said. The business, design and technology schools are seeing the biggest increases in applications.

Walton believes applicants are responding to the slumping job market in the Washington area. With the country stuck in a recession, many people may be recognizing the benefits of career colleges for the first time.

At Westwood, students can graduate in three years, as long as they sacrifice summer vacations.
Perhaps by then, the job market will be better than it is now.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics put the preliminary February unemployment rate at 6.1 percent for the Washington metro area, 6.7 percent for Maryland and 6.6 percent for Virginia.

Career schools see the rise in demand as an opportunity.

“There’s definitely been a surge in enrollment as unemployment numbers are going up,” said Harris N. Miller, president of the Career College Association, a D.C.-based organization with 1,366 members. “We’re getting people going back and upgrading and also people getting skills for the first time.”

In 2007, there were 156 unaccredited and accredited private career schools in Maryland. That number climbed to 174 in 2008.

Virginia has 65 accredited career colleges and D.C. has eight, according to the Career College Association.

Recently laid-off workers are enrolling in study programs that can require anywhere from 40 hours to four years to obtain additional certifications or learn a new industry so they can be positioned to take advantage of the economic rebound when it comes, experts say.

Miller said many of the schools in his organization have noticed a 25 percent hike in enrollment since the end of last summer.

Typically, enrollment growth has been 9 to 12 percent in the past five years, he said.
In this region, there has been a rising interest in programs linked to clinical health care, basic carpentry and green building, said Dean Kendall, associate director of work force development at the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

“We are seeing an increase in in-demand occupations,” he said.

Enrollment at Maryland career colleges climbed over the last decade from 22,000 to 31,000 students. The number dipped last year, the result of fewer people getting real estate training after the market downturn.

Technology, math and science programs are already experiencing an increase in enrollment because of the federal government’s plans for base realignment and closure (BRAC), along with other factors, according to Mark Singer, executive director of the Richmond-based Virginia Career College Association.

“This economy is driving people to different career areas [for] different reasons,” Singer said.
Courses don’t come without a cost. Depending on the program and its length, a career college can charge as much as $40,000 for a degree, although President Barack Obama’s proposed $825 billion stimulus package includes funding for financial aid. (Washington Business Journal)

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