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The Popularity of P&P

“Principles and Practices” is one of the most sought after courses in adult education, but no one is quite sure where this real estate class fits — higher education or job training.

By Paul Ruffins

The students meeting in the basement of American University’s
performing arts theatre are focusing on the basic dramas of modern life — death and taxes, racism and opportunity, marriage and divorce. But the class isn’t about theatre; it’s about real estate. And AU doesn’t teach it. Rather, the class is taught by an accredited proprietary school operated by a large brokerage company. The two-dozen students are studying “Principles and Practices,” or P&P, the basic course required to earn a real estate license.

According to the National Association of Realtors, 253,167 people joined the organization in 2004. That figure suggests that at least 500,000 people took P&P that year. With the boom in real estate prices, it’s likely that it represents a 90 to 95 percent increase over the number of people who took P&P in 1998. The class is one of the most popular courses in adult education because it can literally be the key to the dual American dreams: striking it rich and owning a home.

“We know that there are lots of reasons why people take the real estate pre-licensing class, and that only about half of them do it to become licensed to make a full-time career in real estate,” says Jim Skindzer, the outgoing president of the Real Estate Educators Association. “Some want to become investors; some just want to buy or sell their own personal house; some come just because it’s a chance to take a college-level course.”

One of the things that makes the P&P class unique is that it is taught in so many different venues, says Skindzer. The classes are often taught at major universities, community colleges, privately owned real estate schools and even in real estate brokers’ offices.

The class prepares students to enter the two-tiered process, used in the approximately 45 states that license salespersons or agents separately from real estate brokers. The required classroom hours can be as short as 24 in Massachusetts or as long as 180 hours in Texas. A typical P&P course requires 60 hours and has a two-part final exam, which consists of 80 questions on topics common to the entire United States and an additional 30 questions on the specifics of state law. Students who successfully pass both sections qualify to take the state licensing exam.

P&P is taught in such a wide variety of settings partly because nobody is quite sure where the course best fits. Some consider it higher education; others argue that it is merely pre-employment training for brokerages. According to Skindzer, commercial brokers, developers and academics don’t give residential real estate the respect it deserves. His organization is made up largely of P&P and continuing education instructors outside of the university setting.

“We see ourselves as trying to prepare people for a career in a $2 trillion market that makes up 15 percent of America’s gross domestic product,” Skindzer says. “But we struggle against the perception that we’re just helping people to pass a test to get a license to sell houses.”

The situation is complicated because the real estate industry is not tied to a specific academic tradition, like law or medicine. In an analysis of real estate curriculum requirements published in the November 2003 edition of the Journal of Real Estate Practice and Education, Drs. H. Shelton Weeks and J. Howard Finch of Florida Gulf Coast University wrote, “Over time, the academic field of real estate has had a difficult time finding a clear niche within the academy. Real estate coursework has been variously characterized as vocational, a branch of economics, a branch of finance or an independent academic field.”

Dr. Susanne Cannon, chair of the education committee of the American Real Estate Society, echoes Skindzer’s opinion that academics often see pre-licensing as vocational training rather than higher education. The society emphasizes the academic side of real estate education. Cannon, a professor of finance at DePaul University in Chicago, says she has no problems with the fact that her program’s introductory real estate analysis course does not meet Illinois state licensing requirements.

“The pre-licensing curriculum is dictated by state regulators, not educators,” she says. “To conform to the requirements, we would have to spend less class time on valuation or market forces or land use planning and more time on things that aren’t really about real estate. P&P classes are mainly about things like the brokerage relationship, making sure agents understand their fiduciary responsibilities to customers and clients, or how to stay out of trouble on civil rights issues.”

Karen Ambrose, director of the real estate education program at Montgomery College in Gaithersburg, Md., says her college’s pre-licensing course covers much more than just brokerage. Her department also offers state-approved continuing education classes that teach investing, financing and handling foreclosures. But the courses are offered as part of the college’s workforce development program, rather than the business program.

“It’s pretty much open enrollment,” Ambrose says “and that creates a lot of the challenges you often find in adult education. We find that a lot of our immigrant students have problems with language barriers, and there is always the continuing issue of math anxiety.”

The teaching challenge can be even greater when the class is taught in a free-standing real estate school or a brokerage. In urban areas especially, it’s not uncommon for doctors and lawyers to be enrolled in a P&P course with an immigrant contractor or a single mother participating in a welfare-to-work program.

Harder Than it Looks
Ed Darden completed his P&P class this spring after retiring from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “Before the class, I thought that 60 hours was kind of a long time to cover what you needed to know just to get a real estate license,” he says. “Now I realize that it was barely long enough.”

It was trying to succeed as an agent that represented the real change in Darden’s life.

“For 30 years, I was one tiny cog in a giant bureaucracy. Small businessmen I interviewed said that people with the security of a government paycheck couldn’t understand what they were going through,” he says. “Now that I’m an individual entrepreneur, I’ve experienced that worry, uncertainty and excitement. However, I’m very glad I found a way to go into business for myself without having to cut off my dreadlocks or wear a suit and tie all day.”

Loretta Reed also found that the P&P class meant absorbing
a lot of new material in a relatively short period of time.

“I jumped into real estate directly from a career in personnel recruiting and placement, and this sales job is a lot less stressful than one where you have to satisfy both the employer and the employee at the same time on an ongoing basis,” she says. “I feel that I have moved up from helping people find the most basic necessity — a job — to owning or selling their own home, which is filling a higher level need.”

The National Association of Realtors argues that the low cost of entry, about $1,000 total, and short course time make real estate one of the most democratic, diverse and efficient industries in American society. The organization says that having more than 2.6 million licensed agents competing for business has helped raise home ownership levels to 70 percent, the highest in the nation’s history.

Unfortunately, the great paradox of real estate is that it is much harder than it looks from the outside. “Some P&P classes are just too demanding for poorly educated students, but it’s not fair, or legal, to screen them out if they want to try,” says Eileen F. Taus, who manages education programs for the Westchester County Board of Realtors in White Plains, N.Y. “Other schools make the class easy to pass, but more of their graduates fail the state exam. Brokers argue that success in sales careers has never been linked to academic performance, and that agents are backed up by brokers, loan officers, home inspectors, appraisers and title attorneys who are all supposed to help protect customers and clients. Real estate educators know that no single class can ever prepare you for a career.”

Real estate broker Tim Harper took P&P as an undergraduate student. He says the biggest advantage of such a situation is the out-of-class experience.

“Because it was an entire semester long and we were full-time students, our class had the opportunity to take field trips to visit developers, and for homework we filled out and presented actual contracts and did other projects,” he says. “However, if you want a fast start on a career selling houses, taking P&P from the broker who will hire you gives the big advantage of observing real agents in your actual work environment. That’s just not practical in a two- to four-week brokerage class where most students work other jobs.”

Wherever it is taught, passing P&P is arguably as challenging as passing the licensing exam. “I particularly put a lot of effort into helping students with math anxiety,” says Rosalind M. Allemond, who runs The Real Estate School & More in Alexandria, La.

 “Even though we do our best, some people just don’t have the educational background to pass the first time, or sometimes ever,” she says. “I’ve reconciled myself to this because the basic information I teach has tremendous practical value to everyone who owns or rents a home, whether they get a license or not. When I hear a student say, ‘Now I know why every single mother needs to write a will,’ or, ‘I can finally understand what the lease on my apartment really means,’ I tell myself, ‘You’ve given them their money’s worth.’”

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