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Proprietary school peppers air with student recruitment ads

What’s ‘Virginia’ College doing in Mississippi?

You’ve seen the TV commercials, but what do you really know about Virginia College?

At first glance, the proprietary school based in Birmingham, Ala., doesn’t seem to have roots in Virginia. The sign appears out of place in Mississippi. But the lack of name recognition — or name confusion — hasn’t hurt the college. Almost 150 students have enrolled since Virginia College opened its doors in Jackson last fall.

“In most instances, community colleges train their students to go to senior colleges. We train our students to go to work,” said Bill Milstead, director of admissions.

However, Jimmy Smith, vice president for occupational programs at Hinds Community College in Raymond, disagrees.

“Hinds is a comprehensive community college serving the needs of all types of students, whether they are planning to transfer to a university or enter the job market after completing one of our technical or career programs,” he said. “This comprehensiveness includes one-year certificate programs and two-year associate of applied science degrees, plus such training as job skill upgrade, adult basic education and GED preparation.”

Mississippi’s community college system, one the oldest in the country, is actively involved in workforce training and development programs throughout the state.

Olon Ray, executive director of the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges, said proprietary schools fall under the auspices of the community college board as a legal licensure for certain minimum requirements to meet state statutes.

“I don’t know of any complaints about Virginia College,” he said.

In the early to mid-1990s, proprietary schools went through a shake-up when the U.S. Department of Education raised standards for qualification of financial aid programs. Because of an inability to administer financial aid, many proprietary schools folded, including Mississippi-based Phillips College, with 38 schools around the nation.

Danny Seal, director of proprietary schools, a division of the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges, said Virginia College received a good endorsement from the commissioner of Alabama — and seems to have found a niche market in Jackson.

“Other schools in the area are now looking to possibly upgrade their facilities,” he said, adding that the community college board is not an accrediting body nor does it endorse private colleges. “So far, we’ve had a limited history with them, but our dealings with them have been very positive.”

Virginia College was established by the Atlantis Group Inc., and began operations in Roanoke, Va., in 1983. The college received initial approval to grant associate degrees and certificates as a junior college from the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia in 1985. Four years later, Career Futures Inc. purchased Virginia College and continued to operate under the same name.

“We had some resistance to the name initially, but after several years, the name became very recognizable,” said Ken Horne, founder of Virginia College. Horne and his wife, Ann, began working in the career college field in the early 1970s. “When we got to a point where we could change the name, we didn’t want to. Some people say, ‘Why would I want to go to Virginia to go to school?’ and we have to keep selling the fact that it is a local entity and not an entity in Virginia.”

In 1992, the Hornes opened a branch campus in Birmingham, Ala. A year later, another one opened in Huntsville, Ala. In 1995, the main campus was relocated from Salem, Va. to Birmingham, Ala. Last fall, the Jackson campus opened. Other southeastern cities, with a population base of around half a million, are being considered next. A site in Austin, Texas is also high on the list of possibilities, he said.

“We’ve been treated so royally since we’ve come to Jackson that we joked about moving our headquarters here,” said Horne.

The college’s academic focus is primarily on computer training for business and technology, Milstead said.

“Even though 80% of our courses are computer-related, specializing in various levels of certification, we also offer medical office administration and paralegal programs,” he said.

The college is set up on an open enrollment quarter system rather than a traditional semester system. New classes begin every six to 12 weeks, and programs range from 12 to 30 months, depending on the major field of study.

“Right now, we have about 150 students, and expect to double that by fall,” Horne said. “About 55% of enrollment at our Alabama schools is from referrals. Once students find us, they know we have good people and good programs. We’re one of very few schools that are academic partners with Novel, Microsoft and Cisco.”

Right now, Virginia College is looking for CAD instructors. “Our teacher pay scale is dictated by what the industry pays as opposed to what other educational institutions pay,” Milstead said.

Prescreening for applicants inside the admissions office on Interstate 55 in Jackson is a multiple-step process. When asked for an information packet, applicants are handed a courtesy interview information form to complete and may then talk to a counselor before more information is disclosed.

“Our tuition fees are higher than state schools because our total operating cost is paid by tuition,” Horne said. “State colleges get a certain dollar amount of subsidy per student. Obviously, we don’t have that. We do participate in student loan programs and have a financial aid office. Our tuition fees are higher than a state college but lower than a private college.”

Carolyn Boteler, a 21-year industry veteran who founded Jackson-based TempStaff in 1981 and recently added ExecuStaff, an employment service that specializes in the permanent placement of technical management, administrative and office support positions, said there has been a continually high demand for computer and technical support jobs.

“We would love to talk to anyone at Virginia College about those jobs,” she said. “Computer skills are very valuable in today’s workplace.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com, mbj@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1018.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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