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THE NATION

Tech Schools Cry Foul When Told Many Don't Make the Grade

July 07, 2002|From Associated Press

Gregory Spon was a drafting student at Pittsburgh Technical Institute when he decided to move on to a four-year college and earn a bachelor's degree in engineering or architecture.

He soon got a nasty surprise.

Spon hoped to transfer some credits, but one university after another rejected the college-level courses taken with his vocational training.

After two years and $18,000 in federal student loans, attending college meant beginning again as a freshman.

"How do I start my education?" Spon said, recalling his anxiety at the time. "I don't have the money. I don't have the time to do that."

Cases like Spon's are at the heart of complaints from many of the nation's technical and vocational schools.

They accuse four-year institutions of snobbery for rejecting their college-level courses, particularly because both groups of schools are eligible for federal aid under the country's patchwork system of academic accreditation. Four-year schools say they need to be free to decide what passes muster at their institutions.

With roughly 3 in 5 undergraduates now attending more than one school on their way to a bachelor's degree, according to federal studies, transferring credits is a constant issue.

The Career College Assn., which represents 1,050 institutions, about half of them vocational or technical schools, says many four-year schools are biased against them. "It's a mind-set," said Bruce Leftwich, a lobbyist for the Washington-based group.

Colleges, he continued, "have elitist ideas that our students don't match up."

The Washington-based CCA argues their schools are on the same footing as traditional colleges in the eyes of Congress when it awards federal student aid. Any of the nation's more than 4,000 degree-granting colleges and universities--from the Ivy League to beauty academies--is entitled to federal aid if approved by a recognized accrediting agency.

Regional accreditors vouch for traditional two- and four-year institutions. National accreditors sanction professional programs, such as nursing and law, religious schools and those teaching skills such as culinary arts or optometry. Some schools are accredited both regionally and nationally.

But regionally accredited colleges often refuse credits from the more than 600 schools with only national accreditation.

The result, says the CCA, is a two-class system.

"If a student is paying money and denied an education, and the only reason they're denied is some club, then who does it hurt?" Leftwich said. "It hurts the student."

Leftwich stresses that his organization wants only to transfer credits for basic college courses, such as English composition and advanced math and sciences, not specialized vocational training.

Still, administrators at traditional colleges assert their right to determine which credits they are going to accept.

"Nobody is entitled to a credential," said Barmak Nassirian of the American Assn. of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "Credentials are earned, and they are earned on the basis of the autonomous decisions of the institutions who awarded them."

Community colleges, meanwhile, stake out the middle ground.

"We think universities, when they consider accepting credits for transfer, shouldn't just look at accreditation status," said George Boggs, president of the American Assn. of Community Colleges.

Federal figures suggest that hundreds of thousands of students, at least, enroll each year in technical and skills-training courses at career schools and community colleges.

Although no one tracks how many try to transfer credits from those courses, it appears to be a substantial minority.

Spon, 25, finally found a school--the NewSchool of Architecture & Design in San Diego.

It accepted many of Spon's credits, so he shaved about a year off the school's five-year program.

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