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.
Why for-profit education fails.
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.