Total college enrollments in America’s institutions of higher education are lower today than in 2012, in large part because a growing number of Americans think traditional universities are too expensive. They see a high risk of either not completing a degree or having difficulty in getting a high-paying job after graduation, even in this favorable labor market environment. Yet there are some types of postsecondary education that are lower-risk, cheaper, and probably on average offer more bang for the buck. I wondered: what has happened to the many business schools that operated a century ago that provided medium-level skills such as shorthand to high school graduates over the course of a year or two of study? Many, I know, disappeared with the rapid expansion of relatively inexpensive four-year state universities after World War II as well as technological changes centered around computers. But not all of them. Do the remaining ones offer forms of training that are relatively less risky and less costly than four-year schools?
I talked to the president of MacCormac College, a small (roughly 300 students) not-for-profit school in downtown Chicago that has trained people for mostly business-related jobs since 1904. The school is known for its court reporting program. M. Alexis Stephens is a vibrant, engaging and articulate African-American with a doctorate from Penn with degrees or employment at other spiffy East Coast private schools: NYU, Columbia, and Duke. I asked her about MacCormac’s court reporter training program. Court reporters are vital to the judicial system but they are in short supply, with the average age of existing reporters, according to Dr. Stephens, being 51. She claims that after the two-year program of study to be a court reporter, graduates have a 100% placement rate. Many of the MacCormac students (a majority of whom are racial minorities) come from the much-maligned Chicago Public Schools. Yet they get jobs usually paying $40,000 or more annually from the start, with longer-term salaries running higher, occasionally more than $100,000 annually.
On a cost-benefit basis this sounds pretty good. The sticker tuition price at MacCormac is around $25,000 annually for the two-year program, but most students get some form of financial assistance; Dr. Stephen says the average student cost runs $13,520 a year. The short duration of the study period reduces risks associated with dropouts and the amount of student debt incurred. Dr. Stephens asserts the typical graduate gets several offers for court reporting jobs. To be sure, data from the U.S. Department of Education suggests MacCormac has a low graduation rate and a somewhat higher average cost than Dr. Stephens told me. The non-graduates do not fare well in labor markets, lowering the reported average “salary after attending” to under $30,000 a year. Yet even the dropouts’ risks are limited by the short (two-year) duration of the program.
Consider a graduate of the Chicago Public Schools with pretty good but not outstanding grades, but with a fierce determination to succeed, who is considering several options. Go to nearby Chicago State or Northeastern Illinois State, both schools also with low (under 25 %) graduation rates and average post-graduate salaries of less than $34,000 (Chicago State) or $38,000 (Northeastern) annually. Entrance into the vocationally more promising University of Illinois at Chicago is out of reach academically for many. A court reporting student who succeeds at MacCormac, largely borrowing to pay for the experience, is likely to incur under $30,000 in debt, not a huge burden for someone taking a job paying at least $40,000 annually, probably growing to $50,000 or more within a few years.
There are probably dozens of other similar occupations, some white collar jobs in offices or hospitals (e.g, working with medical records, paramedics), others blue collar jobs like welding or driving long-distance trucks, requiring a period ranging from several months to two years of training. There are literally millions of Americans making good wages in jobs requiring less than a traditional college degree, and training for these jobs is found sometimes at community colleges or sometimes even in vocational schools run by public school systems, but in other cases through career colleges, some of them operating on a for-profit basis. Given that the New York Federal Reserve Bank reports the “underemployment rate” (mostly workers in jobs for which far less than a bachelor’s degree is needed) for recent college graduates is currently about 41%, schools like MacCormac probably deserve greater scrutiny by some aspiring students.