Pathways to Success: The Role of Postsecondary Career Education

By Jenny Faubert, Vice President of Communications, Career Education Colleges and Universities (CECU)

Over the past few years, confidence in traditional education has decreased, while there has been a surge in interest in career and trade institutions. Nontraditional and younger generations are interested in accelerating their career paths, preferring a more direct educational route. This trend is evident in the choice of over 1 million part-time and full-time students opting to attend for-profit career schools in the academic year 2022-23. The choice to enroll in career schools is driven by flexibility, accessibility, accelerated pathways, and robust student support services.

Diverse Student Body
Career schools offer a welcoming environment to underserved students including women, students of color, adult learners, veterans, those from low-income backgrounds, and first-generation students. Boasting a student population where 67% are students of color, 74% are adult learners, 66% are women, and 62% are first-generation students, for-profit career schools exhibit a remarkably diverse student body.

In most cases, career schools cater to a larger proportion of students of color than other sectors of higher education. At the four-year level 41% of students at a career school are Black or Hispanic, compared to 31% at public and 24% at nonprofit institutions. Similarly, at the two-year level, career schools enroll 53% of students who are Black or Hispanic, compared to 38% at public institutions and 50% at nonprofit institutions.

Percent of Black Students at Higher Education InstitutionsPercent of Hispanic Students at Higher Education Institutions

It is a common trend to find adult learners, typically aged 25 and above, among students attending career schools. In fact, 80% of students at four-year for-profit career schools fall into this category, whereas only 26% and 38% of adult learners are enrolled at public and nonprofit institutions. At the two-year level, nonprofit institutions cater to 61% of adult students, closely followed by for-profit career schools at 55%, while public institutions serve 29% of this demographic.

Career schools stand out for their higher enrollment of female students compared to other sectors of higher education. At the less-than-two-year level, 73% of students at career schools are female, surpassing 48% at public and 52% at nonprofit institutions. Similarly, at the four-year level, career schools lead with 67% female students, in contrast to 57% at public and 59% at nonprofit four-year institutions.

The experiences of individuals such as Marlo and Shana Williford-Johnson, along with Shana’s two brothers, who all completed their education at Lincoln Tech in Melrose Park, IL, exemplify the types of students that career schools serve. Marlo successfully transitioned from a tumultuous sales career to a stable managerial role at Johnson Controls, crediting his achievement to the technical skills he acquired at Lincoln Tech. Likewise, Shana's progression from a medical assistant to a critical care registered nurse highlights her career advancement. Devin, who graduated in Collision Repair & Refinishing, discovered his entrepreneurial drive and now thrives as a self-employed professional. Marcus, a graduate in Electronic Systems Technology, utilizes his expertise as a supervisor at Comcast.

For-profit career schools enroll the largest proportion of low-income students across all educational levels. At the four-year level, career schools serve 56%, exceeding 34% at public and 31% at nonprofit institutions. Moreover, 75% of students at career schools pursuing less-than-two-year programs come from low-income backgrounds, with a similar trend observed at two-year career schools, where 63% of students are classified as low-income.

Percent of Low-income Students at Higher Education Institutions

Career schools play a vital role in providing access to education for underserved populations, including women, students of color, adult learners, veterans, those from low-income backgrounds, and first-generation students. With their diverse student bodies, career schools foster an inclusive environment where individuals from various backgrounds can thrive.

Retention and Completion Rates
Numerous students attending for-profit career schools have explored alternative education routes before turning to career schools. Students often view these schools as their sole option for advancing their education, as evidenced by the notably lower transfer rates compared to public and nonprofit institutions, with only 17% transferring out at the four-year level (compared to 22% at public and 26% at nonprofit institutions), and a significant difference at the two-year level, where only 5% transfer out from for-profit career schools (compared to 15% at public and 25% at nonprofit institutions).

Graduations Rates at 2-year Higher Education InstitutionsThe median completion rate is similar among for-profit and nonprofit two-year institutions, with public institutions lagging behind. The median completion rate for the 2021-22 academic year for two-year institutions saw a 60% completion rate at for-profit and nonprofit institutions and 30% at public institutions. Among Pell Grant recipients, both two-year for-profit and nonprofit colleges exhibit the highest graduation rates at 60% each, while public institutions have the lowest rate at 29%.

One possible explanation for the high completion rates could be the higher retention rates observed in two-year for-profit institutions, with rates of 69% compared to 44% at public institutions and 49% at nonprofit institutions. Additionally, at the less-than-two-year level, for-profit career schools exhibit a higher retention rate of 73% compared to the public rate of 65%.

Many students seeking expedited entry into their chosen fields opt for enrollment in for-profit schools. These institutions are responsible for conferring the majority of less-than-two-year completions across all sectors, representing almost 80% of all such degrees/certificates awarded. Moreover, career schools confer a significant portion of less-than-two-year degrees/certificates awarded to Black and Hispanic students, comprising 86% of all conferrals.

Percentage of Degrees/Certificates Awarded by  For-Profit SchoolsHigh-Growth High-Demand Careers
Many industries, like healthcare and the trades, are experiencing staffing shortages. Career schools specialize in awarding degrees tailored to prepare students for the workforce, many in high-growth fields. For-profit career schools award more degrees in fields with expected occupation gaps and high projected growth, such as management, computer science, and healthcare-related occupations.

Nearly half of the associate’s degrees and 34% of certificates conferred by for-profit institutions are in the healthcare field. Specifically, for-profit schools conferred 73% of medical/clinical assistant degrees, 48% of medical record technician degrees, and 19% of nursing degrees.

For-profit career schools also account for a significant share of certifications/degrees in various fields, with over 80% in massage therapy, 76% in cosmetology, 63% in dental assistance, and more than half of all truck driving certificates/degrees awarded.

Career schools play a pivotal role in meeting the educational and workforce needs of underserved populations while also addressing critical gaps in the job market. As the demand for skilled professionals continues to grow, the contributions of for-profit career schools in preparing students for success in high-growth fields cannot be overstated.

Career schools serve as crucial gateways to education for a diverse range of individuals, including women, students of color, adult learners, veterans, those from low-income backgrounds, and first-generation students. With their notably diverse student bodies, these schools foster inclusivity and provide opportunities for individuals from various backgrounds to excel. Additionally, they play a vital role in addressing workforce shortages, particularly in high-demand fields such as healthcare and the trades.

CECU. (2024) Career Education in the States.