After 20 years as an operator at the Hershey chocolate plant in Oakdale, Laurie Parks-Redding was destroyed when it closed in 2008.
In her early 40s, she faced unemployment and the unknown.
"It was total fear," she recalled about the weeks after Hershey stopped production. "I carried all our health insurance. You lose your (work) family, you lose your security."
Parks-Redding said she considered finding other factory work, but was afraid a new manufacturing employer would close eventually. Through help from unemployment and training assistance, she landed at San Joaquin Valley College.
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A private junior college, SJVC is among 30 career and vocational colleges in Stanislaus County that provide accelerated programs in medical, culinary, criminal justice, education and industrial technology and other career fields. They're booming with students like Parks-Redding enrolling to retool their careers amid the recession.
Though Parks-Redding was intimidated about going back to school and didn't know much about computers, she buckled down and went.
"When you're old -- you don't have time. I didn't have health insurance, I didn't have a paycheck coming in. I knew this was my last chance," she said.
The mother of four children ages 6 to 25, Parks-Redding graduated from the administrative health care management program in 2008. She now does billing and coding at Community Hospice and loves her second career.
"I'm lucky I found another (work) family," she said. "I enjoy taking care of patients' needs toward the end of their lives."
For many students, career colleges offer fast-paced training programs with morning, afternoon and evening schedules. Usually enrolling a few hundred or thousand students, the colleges offer a family feel and one-on-one contact with admissions, academic and job-placement counselors.
Enrollment at nontraditional, private schools such as SJVC has grown over the last decade, especially recently as budget cutbacks have forced community colleges and California State University campuses to slash enrollment and class offerings. And when employers downsize under the sputtering economy, many laid-off workers seek training and education.
"When the economy goes bad, people go back to school," said Keith Griffith, senior manager for education at the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance. "(Career colleges are) one of the fastest ways to get the education you need."
Advertising more often
Career colleges are paying attention -- they've increased TV, radio and billboard advertisements in and around Modesto.
Their marketing and recruitment tactics -- sometimes described as assertive -- have backfired for many students who don't quickly land new careers after finishing their education. Tuition is high and jobs aren't as plentiful now.
"People are anxious about finding jobs. They're vulnerable to aggressive sales pitches. And there's a ripe recruiting environment with all the state cutbacks (to public education funding)," said Lauren Asher, president of the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success. "Students need to be very conscientious about what they sign up for."
Career college tuition varies by program, how long the program runs, and what type of certificate, degree or diploma a student receives. A nine-month certificate program can cost about $13,000 at some campuses -- 17 times more expensive than fees for two semesters at a community college. Though students are eligible for federal grants, some end up taking out loans to help pay tuition, textbooks and living expenses.
Nationally, 98 percent of career college students who complete an associate degree graduate with some level of student loan debt; the median debt is $19,000. Those figures are telling when compared with community colleges, Asher said -- 38 percent who earn associate degrees graduate with debt and the median debt level is $7,000.
Also, Asher said, it can be difficult to verify a career college's pitches.
"Some offer good, quality training to people to get better jobs, but it's hard to tell which ones they are," Asher said. Many career colleges are private and for-profit.
She advises that students research programs, the job market and the cost of attending. And she recommends against taking out too much, or any, private loans, which have high fees and interest rates.
Certain areas of study are worth the higher cost to students.
"Cost was a big concern. That's a lot of money -- with three children and the job market what it is," said Steph- anie Farmer, 34, a student in SJVC's clinical medical assisting program. Her studies cost $27,000 and a grant paid about half; she had to cover the rest.
But Farmer said she was working toward a career that's in demand, so the risk was worth it. Currently a certified nursing assistant, the Waterford resident hopes to move into a job with better hours and one that requires less back-and-knee- intensive lifting of patients.
Competition has spurred the growth in nontraditional colleges in Stanislaus County, the alliance's Griffith said. Local schools include medical and dental assisting col- leges, as well as bartender and truck driving schools. Many of the colleges' directors sit on the alliance's education committee and work with local employers to identify which career fields need more trained and educated workers, he said.
Students tend to be older
Though there is no typical career college student, they tend to be older, work more and have families compared with the average student at a traditional college.
"Career colleges focus on students who have very specific college or career outcomes they are seeking," said Harris Miller, president of the Career Colleges Association. "Many students go to college to get general education units or to mature. That's not why students come to career colleges. Our students are hammering at a particular nail, not playing with lots of tools."
Career colleges make up 2.6 percent of all higher education students in the nation, Harris said, but enrollment has been increasing by about 10 percent a year over the past decade. California is home to 324 accredited career colleges that offer licenses, diplomas, certificates, associate, bachelors and graduate degrees, he said.
Despite the cost and reputation as diploma mills, career colleges are gaining legitimacy for students and employers. Most programs are accredited and state oversight has increased, Griffith said.
Nontraditional college officials don't feel they are competing with community colleges or four-year public universities -- every college fills a need in the community.
'Moms, dads, soldiers, nurses'
"Our students are moms, dads, soldiers, nurses; most students are working full time," said Scott Lew- is, University of Phoenix campus director for the Sacramento Valley, which includes a Modesto site. "There's obviously a need for an educated generation and population. And we help fill that void."
Students said they like that programs are accelerated, taking less time to complete, and schedules are flexible to allow for morning, afternoon and evening classes and more online options. Because students are focused on getting in and getting out, academics takes priority over student life activities. Unlike community colleges and universities, career colleges don't have sports teams, student unions, cafeterias, health centers, gyms or theaters.
And terms start every few weeks, so there's no waiting for a semester to start in the fall.
That won over Escalon's Belinda Williams. After the retail store she worked at closed in January, Wil- liams was looking for better opportunities and she didn't want to wait until August to start at Modesto Junior College.
"I liked the idea of having a career more than working at a store," said the 32-year-old. She'll graduate in August from the seven-month clinical medical assisting program and hopes to work in a medical office. "I'm a little nervous about the job market, but I wasn't having success getting a job in retail."
While traditional schools sell classes, career colleges focus on selling programs, said Donna Gosselin, director of education at Salida's Kaplan College.
"The money amount may be higher, but that's overridden here by the offer of what they're going to get in 23 months or less," Gosselin said.
Students are sold on the support programs. Career colleges focus on academic and employment counseling, and boast high student retention and job placement rates. Still, some students don't necessarily find jobs in their field of study.
Help finding employment after graduation -- sometimes for life -- appeals to many students.
"We can't guarantee a job, but placement is just as important to us as admissions," said Sean Hancock, director of SJVC's Modesto campus. The college's employment rate is usually 80 percent or more, but has dipped into the 70s with the downturn in the job market.
Convenience is paramount for students -- which is why many colleges set up shop next to freeway exits. In Salida, for instance, a stretch of frontage road just east of Highway 99 is called "career college row." SJVC, Kaplan, Heald and, soon, University of Phoenix will be located together among industrial parks.
Already a licensed vocational nurse, Tanya Fryer, 41, wanted a bachelor's in nursing. She liked University of Phoenix's program and how classes were prescribed for students.
Fryer works three days a week, then takes classes Thursdays from 6 to 10 p.m.; she's also mom to four children. With her degree, Fryer said, she hopes to work in a hospital pediatrics ward.
"It's a different style of learning. You have to be disciplined," said the Manteca resident. "It's a faster pace. It's not for everybody."
At A Glance
Stanislaus County is home to more than 30 career colleges and vocational schools. The following list is a sample of local programs. Most tuition amounts are per program; programs tend to take fewer than 12 months to complete, and colleges offer a variety of licenses, diplomas, certificates and degrees.
ACI Career College
• Health information specialist, medical-dental administrative assistant, medical-dental receptionist, pharmacy technician, phlebotomist, therapeutic massage, continuing education courses, CPR
• 100 students, 7 staff
• Tuition varies from $4,000 to $10,000 per program
• 338-6224, 2412 McHenry Ave.
Career Express Dental Assisting School
• Dental assisting, dental hygienist, X-ray license
• 5 students, 4 staff
• Tuition varies from $2,450 (textbooks and materials included)
Community Business College
• Accounting, computer office specialist, medical manager, property management, medical billing and coding, solar technician
• 38 students, 5 staff
• Tuition varies from $5,000 to $6,000
• 529-3648, 3800 McHenry Ave. Suite M,www.cbc123.com
Computer Tutor Business & Technical Institute
• Accounting, administrative assistant, medical clerk, computerized business skills, custom courses
• 100 students, 11 staff
• Tuition varies from $3,125 to $7,575 per program
• 545-5200, 4306 Sisk Road,www.computertutor.com
• Accounting, business, criminal justice, health care, paralegal
• Student enrollment just started, 15 staff
• Tuition varies from $1,020 and $4,080 per quarter
• 866-855-4561, 5200 Pirrone Road Suite A,www.heald.edu
• Accounting, administrative management, business management, business law, computerized accounting, keyboarding, paralegal
• 240 students, 20 staff
• Tuition varies from $9,000 to $12,000 per year
• 543-9411, 3600 Sisk Road,www.humphreys.edu
Institute of Technology
• Business, culinary, heating and air conditioning, medical, technical, criminal emergency management
• 1,200 students, 250 staff
• Tuition varies from $17,000 to $25,000 per program
• 545-3100, 5601 Stoddard Road,www.it
• Criminal justice, dental assistant, medical assistant, medical office specialist, respiratory therapy, therapeutic health technician
• 1,050 students, 120 staff
• Tuition is about $10,000
• 543-7000, 5172 Kiernan Court,http://modesto.kaplancollege.com
Modesto Technical College
• Provides training in trade and technical areas for the beginner and advanced technician, such as automotive mechanics and industrial technicians
• 90 students, 11 staff
• Tuition varies from $4,500 to $9,500 per program
• 524-7037, 1400 N. Ninth St., Suite 10,www.modestotechcollege.com
San Joaquin Valley College
• Business administration, medical office administration, corrections officer, medical assisting, pharmacy technician
• 500 students, 65 staff
• Tuition is about $13,000 a year
• 543-8800, 5380 Pirrone Road, Salida,www.sjvc.edu/campus/Modesto
University of Phoenix
• Accounting, business, criminal justice, communications, general studies, health care administration, human services, information technology, education, nursing, counseling
• 590 students, 22 staff
• Tuition varies from $20,000 to $63,000 per program
• 800-266-6985, 3600 Sisk Road, Suite 5A,www.phoenix.edu
On the Net
For a full list of schools, visit www.stanalliance.com/indexes/index-education-btv.php.
Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2339.