When For-Profit Colleges Prey on Unsuspecting Students

Without access to counseling in high school, many ambitious yet disadvantaged students still end up in schools where they’re most likely to drop out and accrue lots of debt.

A student walks past vacant row houses to a waiting school bus as school gets out for the day in Baltimore.
A student walks past vacant row houses to a waiting bus as school gets out for the day in Baltimore.  (Patrick Semansky / AP)

The most common image of Baltimore, Maryland’s largest city, is a place racked by crime, poverty, and despair—a perception largely fueled by the news media and popular television shows like The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street. Now comes a research report that debunks the prevailing view of young people from Baltimore’s impoverished neighborhoods as “thugs” and “criminals.” It reveals a striking picture of black Baltimore youth striving, persevering, and working persistently to get ahead—only to find themselves undereducated and underemployed.

As part of a decade-long longitudinal ethnographic study that began in 2003, the sociologist Stefanie DeLuca closely followed the life course of 150 black youth growing up in Baltimore’s public-housing projects whose families participated in a federal housing experiment. Researchers wanted to gain a deeper understanding of these young people’s lives to investigate the notion that intergenerational poverty is unsolvable. But as the study wrapped up in 2013, with the youth on the brink of adulthood, an unexpected theme emerged with respect to their college experiences.

Looking for a quick path to steady work and income, these young adults were consistently drawn to for-profit trade schools. But what made this option appealing—a fast track to a new career—was also their downfall. Through in-depth interviews and fieldwork, the study’s findings offer a glimpse at what attracts disadvantaged youth to for-profit occupational programs and why they seldom complete certifications.

“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.”

According to DeLuca, for Jackson and the other young people in her study, the breakdown occurred at two stages: the information void that these black youth brought to postsecondary decisions, and the internal workings of for-profit trade institutions. DeLuca found students lacked a clear understanding of what college was and how it related to their career interests—high-school counselors and teachers also emphasized two- or four-year colleges, leaving those interested in work and occupational schools to fend for themselves. To learn about these programs, youth relied heavily on their social networks and the for-profit schools’ TV commercials and websites. “They’re living in precarity and they know it,” she said, “trying everything they can to stay afloat, and it’s like whack-a-mole.”

Additionally, the structure of for-profit trade schools created insurmountable hurdles. Uncertain about their career goals, students hopscotched from one program to the next or juggled several programs at the same time, with for-profit schools requiring full payment upfront. DeLuca said the information deficit was exacerbated by the way for-profit trade schools operate: “You’ve already signed on the dotted line and taken out the loans. The credits don’t transfer, and you don’t get the money back. The appeal of these schools comes in part because of the short duration … [but] mix that with the poor preparation and information, and then you have this disaster in terms of completion and debt.”

Robert Cherry, a professor of economics at Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York system, countered that high-quality for-profit schools can play an essential role in accommodating the growing demand for skills-based jobs. “There is a great variation among for-profits so that the image of them being predators is not nuanced enough,” he said, adding that “the problem is the conflating of for-profits with short-term occupational certificates.” Cherry also faults “the educational establishment” for an ingrained bias against vocational programs, citing completion data from Bronx Community College to support his argument. There, “only one in seven entering students gain an associate degree, and yet this is the direction favored by critics of certificate programs,” said Cherry.

In the search for solutions, both Cherry and DeLuca find the lack of effective counseling at the high-school level to be a critical missing link. “Even if these [for-profit] schools functioned well, the young people in our study would still be at a bit of a disadvantage, because what they’re bringing into this decision is very little information about these particular jobs,” DeLuca concedes. To address this disparity, she recommends boosting the quality of high-school counseling to include guidance about for-profit schools—their costs, range of certificate programs, potential salaries, completion rates, and the trade-off between for-profit certification and other postsecondary options. Another key intervention, she said, is internships that would give disadvantaged youth a sense of who they want to be. “We’ve turned away from those [opportunities] in favor of … SAT prep, but these young people really don’t have the kind of exposure to this array of careers that their middle-class counterparts do.”

Mostly, DeLuca hopes her findings will better inform and influence the conversation about black students and for-profit trade schools. With 10 years of data collection, she was able to uncover the complex set of factors derailing young people from for-profit college completion—from managing jobs and family challenges to exploring careers after already committing to high-priced certificate programs. What looks like failures for black youth, she explained, are in fact signs of perseverance and determination.

“I think there’s a bigger picture here … both who these kids are, and how we get them from the starting gate, where their hard work has gotten them, [and] help them finish the race,” she said. “I think as a country, we view policy investments as zero sum gains, where if poor kids in Baltimore get this, then my kid won't get that. They’re an important part of our society, and we can certainly help them become the adults they want to be, if not more.”