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how can I explain why I went to a for-profit school?

A reader writes:

I graduated from DeVry in the late 80’s. I earned a four-year B.S. there. I was heavily recruited (high test scores) by many colleges and ultimately it came down to a UC and DeVry. DeVry was on a trimester system, so I would graduate in three years vs. four years, and I needed to help my family financially. So I went to DeVry right after high school. (Oh how I wish I had a decent high school counselor who would have steered me to the UC!)) So going to DeVry had nothing to do with not being smart enough to go to other schools. I was first generation college student so my family didn’t know any better to advise me differently.

I know the prejudice against for-profit schools. In fact, as a hiring manager, resumes with a for-profit had a count against them. I am fortunate that I don’t think my alma mater has hurt me too much. I was able to get a job right after graduation through networking and the rest is history. I’ve worked hard at every opportunity and as a result I have an enjoyable, well-paying career spanning the last few decades.

But when it comes up, especially in social situations, I always feel I have to defend that I graduated from DeVry. I always find myself saying “I could have gone to UCxx”. I don’t want to be judged by the fact as a 17-year-old I made the wrong choice. (I know, I know, hypocritical of me). But I also think it’s valuable to show that success can come from going to these types of schools. Or is it really not and I’m just trying to make myself feel better? Do you have any advice on how to handle this situation?

DeVry actually used to have a fine reputation for vocational training (including at the time you attended). Unfortunately, though, it’s been tainted by the same problems as with other for-profit schools — in DeVry’s case specifically, deceptive recruiting tactics, filing false data with the government on students’ outcomes, charging vastly more than nonprofit colleges while spending significantly less per student, and shady student loan practices (and it’s faced numerous state and federal investigations on a bunch of these). So yes, its reputation has suffered significantly from when you attended.

Regardless, though, I don’t think it’s your job to change the public image of for-profit schools, and you’ll be fighting an uphill battle if you try to do that. But I do think you can give an answer that puts the choice in context, and highlights the fact that DeVry of the 80s is different than DeVry of today. You could say something like, “I was a first-generation college student and didn’t have much guidance about picking a school. I ended up at DeVry because they had an accelerated program and I needed to help my family financially. I know, though, that they’ve suffered from the same problems as other for-profit schools in more recent years.”

That answers the question while explaining why you chose the school, flags that things weren’t quite the same then, and shows that you’re not naive about the problems with the school now. (It also might play a useful role in speaking firsthand about how hard these decisions can be for teenagers without a lot of family guidance.)

Beyond that, you don’t have to defend your decision. You have a successful, multi-decade career that speaks for itself, and people talking to you will see that.

how can I explain why I went to a for-profit school? was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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