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September 30, 2014

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HIGHER EDUCATION:

Recession sends workers back to school

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Steve Marcus

David Dewees, laid off in the fall, is back in the labor force while working on his degree at DeVry University’s Henderson campus.

After being laid off from his job repairing industrial machinery, 40-year-old Las Vegan David Dewees found himself in the unemployment line for the first time in his life.

It was an uncomfortable place for Dewees, who moved to Southern Nevada from the Midwest in 2005. He had always managed to find steady work, whether it was on the night cleaning crew at a local outlet mall or more recently fixing surface grinders and milling machines, a position where he had been promoted to supervisor and was earning $20 an hour.

But after months of continually reduced hours and reduced pay, Dewees was laid off last fall. He realized his opportunities weren’t going to improve until he first improved his skills.

In November, Dewees — who had no college experience — enrolled in the networking and communications management program at the Henderson campus of DeVry University, a nationwide private career college that offers certification, associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in various fields. And this month, after successfully completing several courses, Dewees qualified for a full-time job in technical support with Clearwire Wireless, which provides broadband Internet and telecommunications services.

And he’s still going to school, paying $500 a month for night classes at DeVry while earning $12 an hour working his 6:30 a.m.-3 p.m. shift for Clearwire. (His wife works full time managing retail kiosks at several Strip hotels.) As his studies progress, he expects to be in a better position to advance at his new company.

The long hours of work and study are “a little rough,” said Dewees, who estimates it will take him another two years to complete his bachelor’s degree, which will come with a $40,000 price tag. “But I can see the accomplishment waiting at the end.”

Dewees illustrates one effect of the Great Recession: Although the tanked economy has brought some private colleges and technical schools to their knees, others have thrived amid greater demand for career training programs that people like Dewees hope will help them land jobs.

Indeed, the federal stimulus program includes more money for student loans, including programs designed specifically for laid-off workers seeking to train for new careers. The assistance resonates in Las Vegas, where the unemployment rate of 13.8 percent towers above the national rate of 9.7 percent.

Career colleges here are offering classes thought to best suit the local job market. At Kaplan College, that means new associate degree programs in computer networking and radiologic technology. The Art Institute of Las Vegas has a new degree in audio production. And DeVry, responding to student interest and federal labor reports, offers master’s level classes in network communications and accounting through its Keller Graduate School of Management.

The schools also are focusing on finding jobs for students who haven’t yet graduated. After all, “When you can’t put food on the table or pay the bills, that’s when you drop out and don’t come back,” said Rob Dillman, president of Kaplan’s Las Vegas campus.

One of those students is Tunisa Ramsuer, who is finishing up a certification program to become a medical assistant. A 32-year-old mother of two, Ramsuer was a certified massage therapist, but wanted a more challenging and better-paying job in a health-related field.

She was too impatient for the two-year licensed practical nursing program at College of Southern Nevada, so she enrolled in the nine-month program at Kaplan.

She’ll graduate this spring owing $14,000 in student loans, which she hopes to pay off within five years depending on the success of her job search. And she’s optimistic, given the success of fellow students in landing good-paying, full-time jobs.

Private colleges typically offer smaller class sizes, accelerated degree programs and more flexible course schedules. But those benefits come at a price.

CSN offers a medical office assistant program that is similar to Kaplan’s. Both programs prepare students for a national certification exam. But had Ramsuer opted for CSN’s 12-month route, her cost would have been a relatively reasonable $3,200 or so.

To be sure, not all private schools have thrived in the recession. Over the past three years, 47 of the 109 private schools in Southern Nevada that offer postsecondary programs have gone out of business, while another 17 have opened up. Another nine applications are pending approval from the state, which regulates postsecondary education.

New enrollment in the private campuses statewide hit a five-year high of 46,068 in 2005, dropped to 32,964 by 2009 and appears to be trending back up again.

This, despite their cost, which can burden students with years of debt.

An associate degree in culinary arts from CSN costs about $8,000 in tuition and fees for the required 70 credits. At the Art Institute, the same degree program costs $52,000 for 112 credits. Art Institute officials say their program is more comprehensive, with students required to complete 77 credits in culinary-specific courses, compared with CSN’s requirement of 45 credits.

At Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Las Vegas, run by Career Education Corp. which has campuses nationwide, the associate degree runs $41,050 for 101 credits. The higher cost doesn’t appear to be dissuading students. Le Cordon Bleu officials say they don’t release information about individual programs, but say enrollment in its culinary schools nationally is up 31 percent over last year.

At DeVry, enrollment is up 58 percent over last year, to 373 students.

Enrollment at the Art Institute, which offers degree programs in culinary, design, fashion and media arts, is at an all-time high of 1,306, an increase of about 30 percent since 2007, said Lauri Perdue, senior admissions director. Of the students who graduated in 2008 — the most recent year for which data are available — nearly 90 percent found employment in their field of study within six months of graduation. (Kaplan’s local placement rate was 72 percent. DeVry doesn’t release statistics for individual campuses, but put its placement rate nationally at 79 percent to 93 percent, depending on the field of study.)

Students frequently ask what the economy will be like when they graduate, Perdue said.

“No one can predict that,” she said. “But they’re going to be so much more prepared to go out into the workforce that their whole circumstances will be different.”

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