When it’s not much better than the “University of Facebook”: avoiding sketchy training and academic programs
For many, coming out of the quarantine and returning to some semblance of normal life means re-evaluating our professional lives. We are looking for new performance venues for our music and readings, new day jobs, second careers, and side gigs. Some of us feel called to return to school or some other form of training and education as part of that professional shift. But all schools are not equal. Here are just a few signs that the program you are considering might not help you reach your professional goals.
The program is not recognized by the profession you’re entering, or in the case of an academic degree, a regional accrediting body.
For technical and career training programs, always start with the career you want and work backwards. Learn which professional organizations and agencies approve credentials for your field, and narrow your search to schools and programs that meet their standards.
If you are seeking an academic degree, regional accreditation is the bare minimum measure of quality. Earning a degree from a school that is not regionally accredited is about as impressive to potential employers as watching a bunch of videos on YouTube or getting your information from facebook memes. In other words, it isn’t.
They aren’t promising to hire you, but they’re guaranteeing their degree or program is a direct path to your career goals.
As hard as this may be to accept, training and education is not a guarantee of future employment or improved business. It can certainly help, but unless you’re working with a program or business that explicitly guarantees this program ends with an offer of employment at this specific company, nobody, not even an Ivy League university, can guarantee you will get the job you want, or any job, simply because you completed their program.
Emphasis is on how easy and convenient the work of the program will be.
Persuading potential students, especially those older than the traditional “college aged” students, to choose them over their competitors by mentioning that the work can be done without sacrificing paid work or family obligations is common practice among training and education programs of all levels of quality. Simply mentioning that their classes are online, and can be accessed at any time during the day does not mean the place is a diploma mill. But beware of any training or educational program that wants you to think you can simply pop in and complete a few easy tasks and earn certification or a degree.
If you’re entering a field that requires specialized technical training, you are learning a whole new profession. If you’re entering an academic program, you are immersing yourself in a field of study. These things are supposed to be hard. They’re supposed to be time consuming. Putting in the time and effort is a large part of what leads to the expertise in the field at the end of the program. Would you want to hire someone to do work they prepared for in the easiest, most convenient way possible, or someone who cared enough about the work to devote real time and energy to train or learn to do it well?
Feelings sound more important to the admissions staff than learning.
Promising the program will “boost your confidence” or “help you on your journey” is not a red flag in and of itself. Training and educational programs are trying to attract people from two generations whose educations have been greatly influenced by the self-esteem movement. Their potential recruits, people whose money they need to keep going, are used to things like participation trophies, “trigger warnings” on books because words in them might upset some people, and safe spaces to protect them from the ideas of people more liberal or more conservative than they are, so some of that is likely to be part of their sales pitch, no matter where you go.
It becomes a red flag when this seems to be all the program is about. If you’re looking for a quick way to feel good about yourself, looking to pay your money, set aside a little time, and have everyone tell you how much you deserve this, how amazing your results are, and how fun it is to have you there….and little else….what you’re looking for is not training or education, but a retreat or a spa.
There is intense pressure to hand over your money right away.
The terms “for profit” and “not for profit” applied to a university refer to whether the school is owned by a corporation, not whether they want money. Every job training program, college, and university in the world is there to make money, and they will be making money from your enrollment, whether you have full financial aid, and they’re getting the money from government programs, wealthy alumni, and organizations outside the school, or you’re paying for everything with your own income.
It’s the “sign up for our program today for three easy payments of $19.99” approach that should alert you that something is not right about the school. Look out for admissions staff that wants to sign you up the minute you send out that first inquiry email, including pushing for a credit card number to pay for admissions fees or start the first class. Even a program with open admissions is going to want people who are fully aware of what they’ve signed up to do. If they’re practically enrolling you based on an email from you that read, “What type of program is this?” look elsewhere.
Back when I was a reporter, I contacted a well-known for-profit university based in Minneapolis, hoping to write a feature about for-profit universities. The staff person I talked to immediately began making an admission file for me, and sent emails designed for a new student who needed to register and pay for classes for days before I finally convinced them that I was not a potential student and to close the file. While I am not printing the name of the school, it’s one I would not work for and would not attend classes in, based on that interaction.
They claim to be the only path to reaching your career goals.
When researching potential next steps in my own education, I had the following exchange with an admissions representative from a school I will call “Internet University.”
“My career goal is to eventually teach at a college or university. I was looking into your doctorate in Education with emphasis in adult education.”
“Yeah,” the admissions staff member said, “In order to teach at a college or university, you pretty much need a doctorate in Education with emphasis in adult education.”
I’m being deliberately vague on the exact degree and specialization to avoid exposing the school, but the staff member was trying to convince me that in order to even be considered for the job I wanted, I needed their exact degree.
Approximately nine years after that conversation, I have been teaching writing composition courses to adults for six and a half years at a different university based in a different city from the one referenced above. And I hold a Master of Arts in my subject, Literature and Creative Writing, from Goddard College. Earning a terminal degree, whether that be an Ed.D or a Ph.D. in my field, or a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing or Interdisciplinary Arts, would indeed be an improvement in my credentials, but their specific degree was far from the only path to the job I wanted.
Jumping into a new training or education program quickly may be tempting, especially when job hunts become frustrating. But just like any major professional decision, choosing a college, university, or training program should be done carefully, with thorough research.