|Just after she started working for an ambulance company in this suburban enclave east of Los Angeles, Cierra Nelson came to admire the quick decision making and street smarts of the nurses she met on runs to local hospitals. She soon opted to pursue a nursing degree, settling on a low-cost, two-year program at a nearby community college that has an excellent job placement record.
But despite her efforts to complete the coursework in the ensuing four years, Nelson is still not a nurse. California's budget cuts have forced the state's community college system to scale back the availability of crucial science classes. Nelson found herself repeatedly turned away from the oversubscribed courses required for her degree.
Frustrated and seeking an alternative, she took out more than $50,000 in student loans to enroll last winter in a nursing program at Everest College, one of many for-profit institutions that have sprung up in the area amid massive cutbacks in public funding for higher education.
"When I first saw how high it was, it was kind of a shock," said Nelson, who eventually came to the conclusion that taking out loans made more sense than waiting semester after semester to take the community college classes she needed to advance. "I know it's a lot of money and I'll be in debt, but I've got to do what I need to do."
While the program at Everest comes with a much higher price tag -- nearly $60,000 in tuition, compared to less than $3,000 at area community colleges -- its degrees appear to be less valuable on the career marketplace. More than 90 percent of the nursing students at nearby community colleges last year passed state licensing exams, which are required to practice in California. Fewer than 70 percent of Everest students passed the exams, registering the lowest success rate of all nursing programs in the state.