A private route into third level

Look beyond publicly funded third-level colleges – but be sure to check credentials of private options

Even for the hardest-working student who achieves brilliant results, the CAO is a gamble. What can you do, at this late stage, if you had your heart set on psychology, journalism, law or a finance course, but missed out in the second round of offers?

Over the past decade, private colleges have built up solid reputations, and many still have places. Not only that, but some are simply the best colleges to pursue particular careers: Newpark College of Music is an internationally recognised centre of learning; Hibernia College has earned its stripes as a first-class provider of primary-teacher education; there’s arguably nowhere better than St Nicholas Montessori College to train as a Montessori teacher; and Griffith College’s law degree has become highly regarded.

The two big beasts in this market – Griffith College Dublin and Dublin Business School – also have the best reputations. They have a wide range of level six, seven (ordinary degree and certificate) and eight honours degrees.

There are many other reputable private colleges in the sector but, with the term “private college” carrying echoes of distraught English-language students left in the lurch after their institution closed, or the difficulties after American College Dublin had to drop its psychology course mid-stream in 2010, how can parents and students know which ones to trust?

Check them out

Luckily, there's a relatively simple way to check out which are reliable. Diarmuid Hegarty is president of Griffith College and vice-chairman of the Higher Education Colleges Association (HECA), which represents private colleges. He explains "accreditation from the Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) is key. Since it was established in 2012 from a merger of four bodies overseeing higher and further education, the quality of all courses has improved and its standards are becoming more and more stringent every year."

If a college course does not have QQI accreditation, there is a risk it won’t be recognised by employers or may not be seen as worthwhile. If a college has external accreditation only, there may be good reason, but students should be cautious and check it out.

Students may also wish to check whether the private college they are applying to is a member of HECA, which also ensures standards within the sector and only accepts members that are QQI accredited. There are 16 members within HECA. Some, such as Griffith and Dublin Business School, have been in business for more than 40 years; relative newcomers such as the Institute of Business and Technology in Dublin are also attracting students.

“Students should simply focus on what they want to study and where they should go,” says Hegarty. “They should decide what they want to be working at in four or five years’ time and ask what set of skills they need. There’s a lot of choice within the private colleges and they have small class sizes.”

Biggest drawback

The biggest drawback for many students is probably the fees, which can be as low as €4,000 but are more generally €6,000-€7,000 per year. Bearing in mind that the student registration fee is now €3,000, and that some universities charge extra fees on top of this, and also that private college fees may be liable for tax relief, and the gap between the cost of a publicly funded college and a private college continues to narrow.

And if the cost of living away from home and the difficulty of securing student accommodation is factored in, attending a local private college may work out cheaper. That said, students attending private colleges are not eligible for a student maintenance grant.

It’s not too late. Many private colleges will have places for students who meet the minimum requirements of the course. Students can apply through the CAO’s vacant places section, or contact the college’s admissions office direct.

Lastly, don't forget to find out what student clubs and societies the college has to offer – don't expect too much from the smaller providers – and what student supports are in place. With a little bit of research, the right course, and the right college, is still attainable. For private colleges that are members of the Higher Education Colleges Association, see heca.ie

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