Follows is an article on how to select a fashion school from one of our regular visitors (email me if you’d like to submit a topic of your own). Melissa Brown has some insights that one would do well to consider before signing on the dotted line; particularly when it involves for-profit fashion schools. Thanks Melissa
I’m writing about my pattern making education and the discontents I have with it in the hopes that I can save someone else from the difficulties I have run into. I attended a for-profit (also known as a proprietary) school to get my training and I think the fact they were a for-profit/proprietary school is at the crux of the overall problem.
What I got was not what I worked and paid for: I got an education on the state of education at a for-profit/proprietary school. Part of this was my own fault for not doing more research on the school before I gave them my money but some was due to misinformation given to me by the school and my instructors. I also had a feeling something was off but I couldn’t articulate it, so I decided it was just nerves over going into debt to go back to school.
First, a little background to put my opinions in context:
I come from a family with a high regard for education. You can hardly pass the potatoes at a family gathering without bumping into a teacher. In my immediate family both my parents are teachers, two of my sisters are teachers, I am married to a teacher and I have been paid to teach and tutor.
While I was working my way through college the first time I worked on an assembly line as a machine operator in an apparel factory. I enjoyed my work. Life choices led me away from the industry for a long while, and then a few years ago I found myself both needing to and able to make a major career change. My interest in sewing and textiles had led over time to an interest in apparel engineering and pattern making, so after doing some research I decided I wanted to become a production pattern maker.
And, lest you think I’m a student who didn’t take advantage of what the school offered me, you should know I graduated with honors and tutored other students while I was there. (To qualify as a paid tutor for a particular class, a student had to have passed that class with an “A”.)
It is important to remember in the process of choosing to pursue a formal education, and choosing a school to do it at, that education is one of the most expensive things you will ever purchase. It falls somewhere between the cost of a house and a car and deserves at least the thought, investigation and time you would put into those purchases. You are a consumer at a school as much as when you are on a car lot. (Did you know that the people you talk to about admissions at for-profit schools have enrollment quotas to meet and some get paid on commission? These people can lose their jobs if they don’t fill their quotas, so you can assume they are very interested in getting you enrolled. Keep this in mind when you talk to them. I think of them as car salesmen in disguise.) The school will call you a “student” instead of a “customer” and ask for your “tuition” instead of your “money” but the bottom line is they don’t survive without customers paying them for their services. And they know this.
Look, schools don’t want students to consider that they are consumers even though they are (especially the schools that are proprietary and run for profit) because it makes things difficult for them. As a student at a school it is reasonable for you to have the same expectations as a consumer at a retail store: to shop for the best deal for your money, to ask questions, and to be treated with respect and dignity. You have the responsibility to stand up for yourself and expect people to do what you are paying them to do and take them to task when they don’t. Schools work for students (Well, technically they work for your student aid money. It has become quite a scandal how many “schools” have sprung up to take advantage of student aid money. The U.S. Congress is even taking note. Check it out on the Internet.) Without you paying them, they can’t exist, so you have the same leverage as any other customer if you’ll exercise it: the power to walk away and deprive them of your money, if they aren’t selling what you want to buy. (If you have problems with them after you’ve paid them money, you need to know you are in an odd situation as a student-consumer. I’ll discuss this later.)
Do not be confused by the fact that after you graduate your student aid payments will be going to a business entity other than the school. You are participating in two separate contracts when you sign for student loans: You sign a contract with a lender agreeing to pay them back for the tuition money you are borrowing. You sign another contract with the school in which you agree that you will pay tuition in return for them teaching you what is stated in their catalog. Sometimes the contract with the school or lender tells the lender to send the loan money directly to the school. If you don’t agree to this, don’t sign the papers. Go shopping for another lender or school.
Another thing you need to know is that the federal government keeps track of the failure to repay loans rate at every school that receives federally sponsored financial aid. If the rate gets too high, the school no longer qualifies to receive the money. This has put some for-profit school out of business. Financial aid is bread and butter to for-profit schools now because so few people pay as they go through school anymore. (Congress is getting interested in looking into schools that scam people into taking out financial aid loans and don’t educate them. Read this and this for further information. This is a national scandal that few people talk about and we’re all going to pay for it, through our taxes literally and in other ways as a culture and society.) You will find for-profit schools will generally go to great lengths to make sure you understand you must pay your loans because their future income depends on it. (One of the “formalities” I had to go through to graduate was to attend a student loan “seminar” and sign a bunch of papers that essentially said my school had informed and explained in excruciating detail to me that I had to pay back my loans. I don’t know if that would protect them in court from losing federal funds but I’m sure they were covering their backsides.)
People tend to forget about their consumer role when they get into a classroom because they’ve been trained by their early educational experiences that they are not to cause a ruckus in school, not to question the teacher’s authority, not to question why things are the way they are or done the way they are. We have all been socialized on purpose by grade school teachers to understand certain behavior is appropriate in the classroom, and some behavior is not because it is part of the teacher’s job to teach us behavioral standards and because the teachers’ other work is only possible when students are controlled. College level and vocational instructors take advantage of this early training just like any other teacher does. It is a rare teacher who will come right out and say to students “Hey! To get what you’re paying for you need to fight your early training and be active in educating yourself! You need to think and question and evaluate and be articulate with yourself and me, if you want an education. If you don’t put effort into it, you’re wasting your money and you’re not taking responsibility. Education is like your life, you get what you put into it!”
A good formal education (sometimes referred to as a liberal arts degree program) should teach you more than something about the subject matter you have chosen to study. It ought to teach you important skills you will use in all areas of your life: how to think, how you learn, how to articulate your thoughts, and how to communicate effectively. It will also help you acquire some knowledge of yourself and who you are. Ideally, you should graduate with some skills to earn a living, an idea of how little you know and the confidence that you have the skills to learn what you need to know, when you need to know it. An excellent education, at any level, teaches you that you aren’t going to learn unless you ask questions and it will help you acquire the skills to figure out if you’re asking the right questions, ask them, and then pursue their answers.
Formal education is just the beginning, not the end of a person’s education.
In general, the difference to me between a vocational education and a liberal arts education is that a vocational education is much more limited in scope: it is teaching you skills and knowledge to earn your living with but not necessarily the skills that can enhance your life at every level.
My beef with my alma mater is that they presented themselves as providing a liberal arts education as well as vocational training and they did a bad job at both. Some of the problems I ran into were: skills that were not taught, skills taught not being up to professional standards, important information not being presented to students (such as what the professional standards are), the way the staff was managed and then there were lacks in intellectual rigor, professionalism and knowledge among the apparel design department faculty.
Don’t get me wrong: I wanted a vocational education from them. I already had a liberal arts degree, so I didn’t expect that from them. However, I did expect they would uphold certain standards of education because of the fact they grant liberal arts degrees. I thought that to grant bachelor degrees they had to meet certain standards. They do but I was wrong about which ones.
To be more specific, I’m going to tell you what happened to me the term I graduated: The head of my department made a mistake in advising me of the standards necessary for my senior project that could have caused me to stay in school for at least two more terms and cost me between $1500.00 and $2300.00 more in tuition. She admitted the problem in the fifth week of the term I was to graduate. I complained in writing to the president of the school and met with the Dean of Education and the Academic Dean. I presented evidence that I had followed the instructions I had been given and my department head had made the mistake, not me. I considered the mistake to be a major one but the Academic Dean told me “These things happen.” My response was not sympathetic.
I contacted the commission that had accredited the school and told them what had occurred. They were very sympathetic about my situation, and agreed that the school had behaved badly but the only thing they could do would be to accept a written copy of my complaint. There was no way for them to discipline the school or warn other students about the problems at the school. Well, I thought that’s what an accreditation institution did but I was wrong. I was informed that they are there to make sure a school meets minimum requirements in providing education and what happened to me did not violate that standard! They suggested that my only real recourse would be to take legal action and unless I was prepared to spend quite a bit of time and money pursuing legal action, I might as well just get on with my life.
In the end, I negotiated some extra time to complete my Senior Project to the actual standards required and was allowed to graduate with my class as planned. This probably would not have been possible if I hadn’t been an honors student. My academic record gave me leverage.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I could have done to have saved myself from the situation I found myself in with regards to my formal education and here’s what I offer in the way of advice to anyone looking for a formal education in pattern making or any subject area related to the apparel industry:
(Please keep in mind that I did most of these things and even with my inside knowledge of how education as a business and profession functions, I got fooled.)
Outside of the school:
I would want to talk to people working or retired from the apparel manufacturing business as well as graduates of the school. (These are busy people helping me out, so I would offer to take them to lunch or otherwise pay them for their time. Think of it as an investment in your education because it is. Compare $100.00 in lunch tabs for inside info to $30,000.00 in student aid debt for tuition and you can see what a nice return you’re getting for your money and effort.)
Keep in mind retired people have nothing to lose by telling you what they think about any aspect of the industry, including schools.
People still working in the local industry may look on teaching at schools as their fallback position, if they need a job someday. I’d ask if they know any of the staff at the school you are interested in. If they know any of the faculty at the school, you might ask if they used to work with the person, are friends with them, or just know them by reputation. The closer they are to someone working at the school, the more skeptical I would be about their opinion.
Graduates can probably offer the best inside info about a school. Don’t just talk to recent graduates. Try to find someone who has been out of school and working in industry for five years or more. Ask were they were happy with what they learned and did they think their education was adequate to prepare them for their work? Would they recommend the school? What were the best things about their education and the worst? What do they wish they’d been taught in school instead of on the job? What other advice would they offer you about preparing for a pattern making career in a factory? Was there anything relating to being a patternmaker you should have asked about that you didn’t? And ask graduates to refer you to other graduates you could talk to who have worked in your chosen field.
At the school:
The biggest problem I ran into was that my definition of “apparel industry” and the school’s did not match and I didn’t know the extent of the difference until I was so far into getting my degree that I felt I had to finish it. The school’s definition of “apparel industry” was all-inclusive: anyone who had worked in any aspect of the apparel industry was referred to as having “industry experience”. All of my instructors, for example, had “industry experience.” Some had worked for big apparel manufacturing concerns but most had either been teaching for a long while (and had no practical experience in large-scale manufacturing or production), or had owned their own small business. Of the small business owners, I eventually found out most had done everything themselves and only rarely had any of them had employee(s) or hired out work, even to a sewing contractor.
Get a copy of the school’s catalog and read all of it. Read it like a contract because, according to the accreditation people I spoke to, it will be treated as such if you are involved in legal action regarding the school. The catalog is what they are telling you in writing they will provide for your student aid money. Pay attention to whether your credits will be transferable to other schools. If they aren’t and you decide on a career change (whether in college or later in life) this problem will cost you a lot of money because you may have to repeat classes to get a degree at another school. (Also, keep in mind that if a state college or university won’t accept your school’s credits, it says something significant about what the state thinks of your school. State, non-profit schools are supervised closely by state boards of higher education and state legisislators, read: budget makers. They answer to taxpayers directly. The accreditation people don’t.)
Be sure to pay particular attention to the information in the catalog about the faculty. My school had two teachers who were graduates of the school. While this may not seem problematic to you, consider that part of the reason faculties are gathered together is to share qualified professional information amongst themselves in an informal educational way inside a formal educational environment. Teachers are life-long learners like anyone else. If there is a deficiency in the education offered by a school, alumni teachers will pass that on, probably without being aware of it if they haven’t been members of a faculty outside their alma mater and been exposed to different ideas and ways of doing things. They may also pass on information without questioning it out of respect to their former teachers or because they now have a peer relationship with the teacher and don’t want to rock the boat on their way to tenure.
I would ask how many graduates are working specifically as production patternmakers and I would ask to speak with some of them. (People who are happy about their education like to talk up their school and they participate in alumni events. If the school says no one is available to talk to you, that tells you something about the school.)
I would find out what the dropout rate is and what the graduating rate is (this info is included in annual reports of for-profit schools but you want to hear the school’s answer and check it against what’s in the report). Then go read the school’s annual report. (It may be on-line or available through your local library.)
I would ask what background (in addition to formal education) the instructors have that makes them qualified to teach their subjects and I would rate factory experience and having patterned for others for pay higher than having patterned for their own businesses or their own family’s business. My reasoning is that in a factory someone gets feedback on their work from the other qualified workers around them and they learn from the other professionals. In a small business situation a person doesn’t get the same level of feedback and benefit of other peoples’ professional experience, at least not usually in a timely enough manner to save their business. (My faculty was strong on small business & home-based business experience and weak on factory experience.) I would check how many instructors have production sewing experience and how many of those have sewn on an assembly line or as a sample sewer. People who’ve earned their living in a factory have different experiences and skills with equipment and materials than someone who is a small business owner or custom clothier. Also, if they’re good, not many become teachers because their skills are in enough demand they can earn more money in a factory than as a teacher. If you want to work in a factory, in manufacturing and production, then you want your teachers to be knowledgeable and professionally experienced in this area. You are paying them to share the benefits of their experience with you. Shop, and then pay only for the right experience for your education.
I’d ask to see resumes or curriculum vitaes (teachers in higher ed. tend to have these instead of resumes because they list out things they’ve published) of the instructors, the department head and the academic dean. And I would check references. I’m not kidding. Treat this investigation of the school like your career depends on it because it does.
Read the syllabi of the classes you will be taking. Schools are required to keep these on file. They are usually available in the college’s library. Look for substantial and specific information about each class in its syllabus. Vague instructors write a vague syllabus. If they won’t show you their syllabi, that tells you something about the school.
I’d ask to talk to the instructors and see how easy it is to get them to answer questions about specifics such as pay in the industry and working conditions, how many years experience they had, what they felt their strengths were and what they did for continuing education, what their favorite texts were, etc. If it was hard to get them to talk to me, I’d see that as a major problem, not minor. Borrowing Kathleen Fasanella’s excellent phrasing, I’d look for “intellectual generosity” (in other words, the willingness to share their knowledge with others. You might think of this process as a job interview for teachers. If they don’t answer your questions before they get paid, what makes you think they will do so after you pay your tuition?) Most for-profit schools offer some kind of event to introduce faculty and potential students. Mine called it an “educational seminar” or some such, held one every term or so and charged a nominal fee ($5.00 or so) to potential students attending.
I’d ask questions about continuing education opportunities through the school especially relating to CAD and pattern making software and equipment because these are so prohibitively expensive for an individual to buy. And if they said they offered continuing education opportunities, I’d confirm it by asking for a calendar of classes and events or speaking with graduates who had attended or used these resources. I would want to sample any databases or online supports they offered to make sure they offered something of value to me and I would ask the graduates I talked to how useful alumni support offerings had been to them and their fellow students.
If I decided to attend the school, I’d take note, literally, of any excuses I was given regarding why things I’d been told were going to happen during my education did not happen. I’d hold the school and individuals responsible for not honoring their word and I would complain loudly and cogently to my fellow students and the administration about the situation. If the situation was not resolved quickly, I would seriously consider leaving the school at the end of the term and writing complaints to the organization that accredited the school, as well as the Better Business Bureau.
When I toured the school, I would ask many questions about the facilities and machines we would be trained on. I would ask for demonstrations on all the machines and if told a machine was not working, or was always breaking down, or had been in disrepair for some time, I would want to know why. I would ask if the spare machine was in good repair. I would expect a spare. If they brushed off my questions or the answers were not reasonable, I’d assume that’s how they deal with any questions from students. (And being who I am now, I’d ask them if they deal with all questions from students in such a disrespectful manner.)
I would also take very seriously any indication that the administration does not consider the education of the students, and student complaints about that education, a high priority. I would expect a reasonable and prompt response from the administration to any complaint made by a student about things within the school’s power to control. If my questions were not answered or otherwise treated disrespectfully, I wouldn’t attend the school. Likewise, if my gut was telling me something was off but I couldn’t put my finger on it, I’d trust my gut instinct over what my research had turned up, and look at another school.