Choose Wisely


Melissa Hurtado was looking for a destiny when she enrolled at a for-profit trade school, but all she found was debt.

Stephanie Hernandez was not only facing big tuition bills at her career college, but also becoming frustrated with the impersonal instructional style.

Different students. Different institutions. Same old story. And while both Hurtado and Hernandez would eventually find a happier existence at South Texas College, it’s safe to say they left their for-profit experience with a few tales to tell.

“I got my MOS certification but was never able to get my certificate paper because I was left in debt,” said Hurtado, who switched to STC after the vexing experience.

A few semesters earlier, Hernandez made the same choice. Initially, the healthcare program she chose at her proprietary school seemed fast. It seemed focused. Little did she know, at the time, that the non-transferable credits would lead her directly into an academic brick wall.

“While a proprietary school can be fast and quick, it will not help you if you wanted to continue your education,” Hernandez said. “Always think about your future and how far you can go.”

It would take a polar-opposite experience at STC to regain trust in the higher education system. Indeed, the moment they set foot in class, both Hurtado and Hernandez knew something was different. Suddenly, between the low-anxiety atmosphere and compassionate guidance of STC faculty and staff, they began to feel less like customers and more like part of a community.

“I feel as if I learned way better at my community college,” said Hernandez, who graduated from STC in 2020 after making the switch. She is considering returning to the college to pursue a bachelor’s degree. “The biggest difference for me was that [STC] was way more organized and structured.”

To hear STC leadership tell it, though, the biggest difference between for-profit and community college is less about structure and more about the mission statement – in other words, the reason for each institution to exist.

“We focus on getting students what they need to be successful in their educational and career journey,” said Sara Lozano, dean of business, public safety, and technology at STC. “Most of our programs offer small classes with individualized attention and really allow students to become part of the local community.”

And while cost and convenience are the attributes most often touted by public, two-year colleges, Lozano believes that STC affords students a deeper experience through connections and resources not found anywhere else. With advantages like decades-deep workforce partnerships and access to public funding to improve facilities and curricula, STC isn’t just the wallet-savvy option. It’s the best higher education choice all-around.

“South Texas College is truly a college for the community,” Lozano said. “I am so fortunate to be able to work for ‘the good guys.’”

Advantage #1: Opportunity

“Everyone’s educational journey is different,” said Lozano, which is why it’s so important for a student to feel like they have options to explore. Community colleges are known for providing a broad spectrum of opportunities, and with 127 degree and certificate programs covering everything from basic skills to bachelor’s degrees, STC is no exception.

With cutting-edge amenities like FESTO robots and the 198-seat Cooper Center for performing arts, career education students are sometimes surprised to find facilities that match STC’s industry-expert faculty step-for-step. Meanwhile, university-bound students have access to a network of nearly 50 connected institutions all accepting STC credit for transfer.

Whether honing salary-boosting skills like Hurtado, or moving up the higher education ladder like Hernandez, STC represents freedom of choice.

“My advice would be to look at … long-term goals and not just something quick,” Hernandez said.

Advantage #2: Agility

Even before the pandemic, communities counted on two-year colleges to provide innovative solutions to regional problems. So it was no surprise that, when the health crisis began forcing higher education off campus, it was community colleges that had the built-in flexibility to pivot online.

In STC’s case, adapting meant mounting a Herculean effort to re-imagine the college classroom while maintaining all of the advantages of a connected campus community. Where remote instruction was impossible, STC innovated distancing and sanitation strategies to keep its students on course for a debt-free outcome.

According to Lozano, the unique agility of a community college tends to extend to students themselves. Through articulation agreements, partnerships, and workforce connections, institutions like STC can afford students a more flexible future than a “one-trick” trade school.

“South Texas College is an accredited institution [so] students can also take classes and continue their education at other institutions … with the majority if not all of their classes transferring,” Lozano said. “[That] is not always the case for proprietary schools.”

Advantage #3: Connectedness

It sounds cliché, but community colleges care. They’re responsible to the communities that support them, not beholden to investors with nothing but the bottom line in mind. Meanwhile, employers and families rely just as heavily on the career pipelines speeded by community colleges. The result is a time-tempered trust between two-year colleges and the communities they serve.

For Lozano, who believes a community college’s advantage is in its “individualized attention,” the best part is the built-in opportunities that the partnership continues to provide.

“We are able to expose students to projects and experiences that include volunteer opportunities, skills training, and community service,” she said.

Advantage #4: Credibility

With tradition comes trust. Community colleges build their reputations not on quarterly profit statements but on persistent success in facilitating positive outcomes and uplifting families. While younger than many public colleges, STC has demonstrated its commitment to the long haul in 28 years of consistent, transparent service to the Rio Grande Valley.

For local hiring managers like 5×5 Brewing Company’s George Rice, that longevity translates to ongoing confidence in new hires and belief in the programs that helped them develop. “STC is mindful of this stuff,” he said, while adding that his first call is always to the college when looking for qualified employees.

Advantage #5: Cost!

We’ve left “low cost” for last on this list because there’s really no comparison. According to College Board, community college students pay an average of $3,264 annually while for-profit institutions charge $15,130 – nearly five times as much.

Likewise, tuition at South Texas College amounts to just a fraction of a for-profit education. And thanks to transferable credits accepted by Texas A&M, Baylor, Arizona State, and beyond, students don’t even need to stay to make STC a great value.

“Cost is a big factor,” Hernandez said. “STC is affordable and offers full financial aid while a proprietary is always almost double or triple cost-wise with very little financial help.”

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