When it comes to education choices — from kindergarten up through college — the decision is no longer simple.
Children don't just attend their neighborhood public school anymore. They often choose between that and the charter school across town as the number of students enrolled in charter schools has more than tripled since 2000.
And after graduation, students are increasingly looking beyond traditional state and private schools for a higher education. For-profit colleges — offering flexible schedules but high costs and lower graduation rates — have enrolled one out of four new undergraduate students in the U.S. since 2000.
"Despite lots of progress on building better and more accountable schools, we're still a long way from nirvana," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform. "As along you have a system that is still failing to provide an adequate education to most of its kids, you're going to have a demand for options."
A decade of growth in school options has led to a significant shift in where students in the United States are obtaining their education, a report released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics.
Education experts pointed to several factors in the rise of students pursuing alternative school choice options. At the primary level, frustration over persistently failing schools — frequently in large, urban communities — has made charter schools an appealing choice for many families.
Charter schools receive taxpayer dollars but have flexibility over how to meet education standards.
The most recent figures show charter schools served 1.4 million students in 2008-09, up from 340,000 at the start of the decade. Allen predicts charter school enrollment could reach 3 million children by 2015 if the pace continues.
In Philadelphia, for example, school officials estimate one in four public school systems will be enrolled in one of its 82 charter schools next year. Charter enrollment in the city has leaped from 16,000 students in the 2001-02 academic year to a projected 47,000 next year.
In New Orleans, many schools that reopened after Hurricane Katrina's 2005 devastation have been converted to charters. Now, more than half of the children in the district attend charter schools and more charter school companies keep entering the city.
Parents often see charters as an alternative to large neighborhood schools, many of them academically troubled or deemed unsafe. Still, the increase in charters has paralleled rising test scores in traditional public schools over the past eight years.
"Charters have opened up a door and are interpreted as choice," said Leroy Nunery, the Philadelphia district deputy superintendent. "But not all schools are created equal."
At private for-profit colleges, enrollment has skyrocketed by 1.2 million students since 2000, and the colleges now make up 9 percent of the 18 million undergraduate students in U.S. colleges. That's compared to 3 percent previously.
The number of bachelor's degrees awarded at for-profit colleges has climbed fivefold from 2000 to 84,673 in 2008-09.
But critics say pricey colleges aggressively recruit underprepared students, then let them fail and drop out too often with thousands of dollars in loans and no job prospects.
That's the reason colleges are in a legal battle with the Education Department over new regulations that could limit schools' access to federal financial aid if graduates' debt levels are too high or too few students repay loans.
"There is evidence one of the reasons has been various aggressive — and in too many cases, deceptive — recruiting, where students are being visited at home, called at home, frequently daily," said Pauline Abernathy, vice president of the Institute for College Access and Success, an advocacy group for tighter regulations.
Supporters of for-profit colleges say the schools serve an important role by helping students who wouldn't normally have access to higher education.
The report notes that the shift in enrollment trends also has been accompanied by a change in the how coursework is delivered: At the private for-profit institutions, for example, 12 percent of students took all of their classes through distance or online education, compared to 3 percent at both public universities and private not-for-profit institutions.
Several other differences exist between the private for-profits and traditional colleges and universities. At for-profit schools, for example, 81 percent of students had loans — $9,800 on average, considerably higher than those at traditional private colleges, where 61 percent had loans. The study also shows higher default rates from the for-profit institutions.
Educational outcomes at the for-profits were also weaker: The six-year graduation rate was 22 percent at for-profits, compared to 65 percent at traditional private schools and 55 percent at public universities.
Harris Miller, chief executive and president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities — an industry lobby — said those numbers were not representative of actual graduation rates because it only includes first-time, full-time students — a category most of their students do not fit.
He said enrollment at private for-profit schools has begun to level off as the economy improves, but he expects some growth to continue.
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