Sunday, July 2, 2006

Choosing the Right School

Note: This post focuses on the post-secondary education system in the United States.


Most positions in the information technology field require some sort of advanced degree and, in some cases, additional industry certification. For example, the minimum requirements for an entry level PC technician is industry certifications, while the minimum requirements for an entry level software engineer is a Master's degree. In nearly all cases, post-secondary education is required.

In the US, there are many post-secondary schools available, and it can be very confusing as to which school to choose. The objective of this post is to help you make a decision on choosing the right school by:

  • Showing you the differences between a "for-profit" and "non-profit" institution

  • Showing you the pros and cons of each institution

  • Giving you some advice on the best option to take

For-Profit Institution

For-profit institutions are sometimes called "proprietary" or "private" institutions, but these are not to be confused with private non-profit colleges and universities. For-profit institutions are corporates that provide education services to either assist its customers with obtaining industry certifications or to grant its customers a degree upon completion of the program. One of the selling points of the for-profit institution is the "job placement" program, which actually provides job leads to the students. Some for-profit institutions are nationally known (ITT Technical Institute, University of Phoenix, DeVry University), while others are locally or regionally known (Pittsburgh Institute of Technology). These institutions are usually accredited by the ACICS (Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools). Since these institutions are for-profit corporations, the primary source of funding is from tuition paid by the customers (students).

Pros and Cons of a For-Profit Institution

  • The education that you'll receive from these institutions is relevant to the degree or certification that you are pursuing. For example, if you are pursuing an Associates degree in network administration, you will probably take networking classes, a communications class, a writing class, math classes, and a programming class. You won't have to take "The Analytical Comparisons of the Roman Architecture and Greek Architecture".

  • You will get your degree or certification much faster than you would if you attend a traditional college or university. For example, the programs are set up to allow the student to complete a Bachelor's degree in three years (if the school offers this degree). Traditional colleges and universities are set up to allow the student to complete a Bachelor's degree in four years.

  • Enrollment requirements are not as strict as for a traditional university. In most cases, the only requirements are a high-school diploma or GED and to pass a writing and math skills test.


  • Since it is a for-profit institution, the bottom line is to get you in the door. The recruiters may not have your best interests at heart because they need your enrollment, so they may guide you into a program that may not interest you, or may be beyond your abilities. Note: while a school can lose accreditation and lose the ability to accept federal student loans for tuition payment if the school gives recruiters a commission based on the students they enroll, schools can fire recruiters if they don't make their quota (the number of students they have to get enrolled per enrollment period).

  • For-profit institutions are very expensive, compared to most traditional colleges and universities. For example, it costs approximately $35,000 plus additional costs to obtain a two-year degree from ITT Technical Institution. It costs about $8,000 to obtain a two-year degree from the Community College of Allegheny County.

  • There is a limited transferability of credits. For example, if you decide, after one year, that you no longer want to attend a particular for-profit institution, and you want to attend a traditional college or university, you may find that very little to none of your credits will transfer, and you will have to start all over again.

  • In order to attend these schools, you have to sign up for an entire program. For example, if you are only interested in taking Linux classes, you cannot take a Linux class (unless you were a previous student at the school). You would be required to sign up for the Network Administration program.

Non-Profit Institution

Non-profit institutions are your traditional colleges or universities. The college or university can fall under one of three categories:

  • State-owned institutions are colleges and universities that are owned by the state in which they are located. For example, Penn State University and UCLA are state-owned universities.

  • Private institutions are colleges and universities that are owned by an organization, usually a religious group. For example, Harvard University and Notre Dame University are private institutions.

  • Community Colleges are colleges owned by the county in which they are located. Community colleges offer industry certifications and Associates degrees.

These institutions are usually accredited by a regional accreditation agency that specializes in not only accrediting colleges and universities, but it also accredites the school systems (elementary and high school) in the region. Since these institutions are non-profit corporations, they receive other funding sources besides the students' tuition, such as donations from alumni and organizations, and federal and state grants.

Pros and Cons of a Non-Profit Institution

  • Credits are transferable throughout most institutions. For example, if you go to Pitt, and you decide that you would rather go to Duquesne University, your credits will transfer.

  • Your degree will hold more prestige and be more recognized in the industry than a degree from a for-profit institution. The main reason is because there are stricter guidelines on accreditation for a non-profit institution than there are for a for-profit institution. If you decide to pursue an advanced degree, you have a bigger selection of schools at your disposal if you received a degree from a traditional college or university. If you received a bachelor's degree from a for-profit institution, and you decide to pursue a Master's degree, you would be limited to choosing only for-profit institutions for your advanced degree because most traditional institutions do not recognize degrees from for-profit institutions.

  • You do not have to sign up for a degree program. If you are only interested in taking a Linux class, you are allowed to take only a Linux class at a school without pursuing a degree.

  • The tuition for community colleges and state-run institutions is considerably cheaper than a for-profit institution. For example, for the same price that you would pay at ITT Technical Institute for an Associates degree, you can get a Bachelors degree from the University of Pittsburgh.

  • Community colleges have open enrollment, which means the only requirement is you have a high school diploma or a GED in order to sign up for their degree or industry certification programs.


  • For state-run and private institutions, the admissions process is very selective. You may have the best grades and the best SAT/ACT scores, but the program may accept only so many new students per year, or they may use other judging criteria for who has a better shot at getting admitted, such as alumni programs and community service that the potential students have performed. You may end up either turned down for their program or put on a waiting list.

  • Most classes at universities are very large, especially at the freshman and sophomore level. You may end up in a class with 200 (yes, two hundred) other people.

  • Some classes at a university are not taught by a professor. Rather, the class is taught by either a research assistant or a graduate student. This happens more often in state-run universities.

  • In order to get your degree, you will be required to take course that have absolutely nothing to do with your career or you will not get your degree.

Best Option to Take

Before choosing your school, research all of the schools that you are interested in attending. Ask the following questions:

  1. What is the tuition?

  2. What is the refund policy if I decide to drop a class?

  3. Are there additional costs, like lab fees?

  4. What is the attrition ("dropout") rate?

  5. For a for-profit institution: What is your job placement rate, and of those jobs placed, what percentage are in positions for which the student was actually trained?

  6. For a non-profit institution: What percentage of the classes are actually taught by a research assistant or graduate student?

  7. What is your average student-teacher ratio in the classes?

  8. When was the last time you had a tuition hike?

  9. Are my credits and/or degree transferable to any school?

  10. For a for-profit institution: when was the last time the school lost its accreditation?

  11. What is the crime rate for the campus?

  12. Do you offer tutoring services for the students?

  13. Do you offer scholarships or tuition discounts?

  14. If you are disabled: Does the institution offer special services or amendments for disabled students?

The best option, in my opinion, is to attend a community college for your industry certification or your degree for the following reasons:

  • Community colleges have open enrollment, which means that you won't be turned down from the degree program unless you do not have your high-school diploma or GED.

  • Community colleges are the cheapest option. If you decide that IT is not for you after 1 or 2 semesters, you are only "out" a small amount of money.

  • The degrees are transferrable should you decide to pursue your Bachelor's degree. Plus, the non-profit colleges and universities offer discount programs or scholarships for community college graduates.

  • The credits are transferrable should you decide to attend another college or university.

  • You can pursue the degree or certification at your own pace. You're not required to take X amount of classes per semester.

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