“Fewer than one out of five of the kids in our study ever turned to the street. These are young people who are trying to adhere to mainstream norms and values, and … their hard work still doesn’t pay off,” said DeLuca, an associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of Coming of Age in the Other America, a book that resulted from her research. “The barriers are not just about four-year schools [but] at this other level, this newish part of the landscape … for-profit trade schools.”
Increasingly, for-profit schools have come under scrutiny from regulators and critics for leaving students—disproportionately black and Latino young adults—with heavy debts, poor graduation rates, and weak job prospects. Corinthian Colleges, one of the largest for-profit chains, closed its doors last year following a U.S. Education Department investigation and a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau lawsuit that charged the company with falsifying its job-placement rates. Last month, ITT Technical Institutes also shut down operations after 50 years in business, apparently buckling under “allegations of fraud, deceptive marketing and steering students into predatory loans,” as reported by The Washington Post.
In the Johns Hopkins study, most of the youth hailed from segregated Baltimore communities with poverty rates exceeding 50 percent and 80 percent or more black residents. About half grew up with alcohol- or drug-addicted parents, and the same number saw a parent incarcerated during their childhood. The majority of the high-school graduates surveyed opted for training programs with the promise of immediate employment “because their family and … circumstances required it.” Yet while the students aspired to the quintessential elements of the “American Dream”—a good job, a nice place to live, and financial security—they lacked the information necessary to reach their ambitions.
Their lack of knowledge about occupational careers in auto mechanics, cosmetology, and health-care and computer fields, as well as the structure of many for-profit trade programs, resulted in a series of fits-and-starts—with for-profit schools proving to be a costly and complicated route to postsecondary education. More than half (53 percent) of the young adults in the study—which included young people ages 15 to 24—sought occupational certification at for-profit trade institutions, but only 31 percent of the black youth had earned a certification by the study’s conclusion.
“Jackson” (pseudonyms were used to protect the respondents’ identities) exemplifies a typical pattern. After graduating high school, he enrolled in Baltimore City Community College, and earned some credits in computer science. He then started barbering, and while cutting a client’s hair was encouraged to enroll in TESST College of Technology, a for-profit technical college with campuses in the Baltimore region. TESST appealed to Jackson for the chance to get a computer certification more quickly than in community college—but his BCCC credits couldn’t be applied to his TESST program. He then switched interests and enrolled in a medical-tech program at TESST before realizing he disliked handling blood. Simultaneously, he held a string of low-paying jobs, trying to support himself, running into one roadblock after the next. “It wasn’t [actually] college,” he said, describing his for-profit school experience. “It was a trade school, so I couldn’t transfer [anything] over … I should have stayed at Baltimore City Community College and finished an associate’s degree.”