The Lifelong Cost of Getting a For-Profit Education

A new report shows how these institutions hound people to enroll, and then leave them with little besides a pile of loans they often can’t pay back.

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For many students, the path toward enrolling in a for-profit college starts with an advertisement—maybe while browsing online or watching a favorite television show. Either way, the message is usually the same: Get off the couch and do something with your life.

The ads feature compelling and relatable stories: A young—or perhaps middle-aged—African-American stuck in a dead-end job and looking for change. A single mother trying to provide a better life for her children. A military veteran contemplating next steps after returning home. When prospective students stumble upon ads that catch their eye, they might make a quick phone call or send an email for a brochure.

And then they are inundated with messages to enroll: Calls, emails, and maybe even texts. “It’s just a full court press,” Robin Howarth, a researcher at the Center for Responsible Lending, told me. “Even if they were being very clear that they were just in the early stages of thinking about college.”

On Wednesday, the center released an extensive report on how for-profit colleges recruit students to enroll and then often leave them swimming in debt. In nine focus groups, the center had students who took on debt to attend a for-profit college describe their experiences, from enrollment to paying off their loans.

The focus groups were conducted last summer in Orlando, Florida, and the researchers say that the lingering debt accumulated by these students is partly the result of Florida’s lax regulations on for-profit colleges. An environment, they say, that may reflect where the nation is headed as the Trump administration rolls back Obama-era regulations aimed specifically at reining in abusive behavior in the for-profit sector.

For students, it’s hard to duck the barrage of ads forever. “They bugged the crap out of me,” said one former student. “[They were] so persistent that there is no way I wouldn’t have started.” But it wasn’t just the persistence of for-profit colleges that roped students in. Their degree offerings connected with students’ interests, with the potential to put them on the fast-track to a more lucrative career.

Research has shown that for-profit colleges disproportionately enroll black students, single parents, and older students. On its face, that seems like a good thing, since it means increased access to higher education. But for-profits tend to be more expensive, have lower six-year graduation rates, and lead students to take out more loans that they are more likely to default on. Yet, despite all the red flags, students described the process for enrolling in the institutions as virtually seamless—“frictionless,” even.

Once students were accepted and were given financial aid packages—which, for low-income students, consisted of Pell Grants from the government—they were sometimes encouraged to borrow more than they needed. That extra money, the schools would say, was for computers, audio equipment, or other things that could set the students up on the path for success. Other times, it was so that the student could live—providing for basic needs—while going to school.

But there are federal limits on how much students can borrow and how many times they can receive Pell Grants. So, federal funding can dry up for students who may have previously exhausted a portion of their Pell Grants at a different institution. And that means paying for college out of their own pockets by cobbling together money from relatives or taking out more loans.

At traditional four-year colleges, students typically accumulate debt and then are able to pay it off after they graduate. But as Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, wrote in this magazine, “The more likely story [at for-profits] is the student who finishes with high debt or more debt than their salary can absorb—say, a nursing assistant. Or, the student who doesn’t finish, is perhaps the most vulnerable of all students. She has debt, no degree, and all the burdens that made her likely to attend a for-profit college in the first place.” The latter, students who have little to show for their time in college besides a pile of debt, were common in the focus groups.

Now, of course, there were success cases. The school leader who was promised consideration for a better job if she went back to college for a credential that an area for-profit was offering, or the store manager whose company promised her a promotion. But even those students wound up with heavy debt burdens.

After students rack up the debt, they often don’t know what to do with it. Several of them reported being unaware of arrangements like income-based repayment, which allow borrowers to repay their loans at a lower rate based on the amount of money they make. And even the students who were aware of income-based repayment were skeptical. They’d received calls from loan servicers, debt consolidation firms, and school default managers, and had a hard time parsing what was legitimate. Besides, they argued, if their loans were in deferment or forbearance—and they were not paying anything at the moment—it’s easier to keep deferring the debt for as long as possible even if that means paying more money in the long term.

For the borrowers who were eager to pay off the debt, paperwork often held them back. “All the paperwork is tiring,” one borrower said, according to the report. “I have two toddlers and I work 10 hours a day and everything is overwhelming.”

That’s how a lot of the students felt, Howarth told me. The debt burden was like a weight, one they hoped they didn’t pass down to their children. They had hoped attending college—getting a degree or credential—would help them out of a intergenerational cycle of low wages and little to no wealth. But they now feared attending college had subjected their kids to just that.