(image source: Tulane Public Relations)
“The salesman knows nothing of what he is selling save that he is charging a great deal too much for it.” Oscar Wilde
If you’re like most Americans, the vast majority of Americans that is, you’re feeling a little squeezed by the world you live in. You probably can’t put your finger on the cause of your predicament, because like most Americans, you don’t know much about the structures that constrain your opportunity, your wallet, and your whole outlook - but you’re probably broke, or close to it. All that being said, you DO know a lot. You know about hard work, paying rent, student debt, and hope. It’s that last one, the hope part, that keeps you going. It keeps your bloodshot eyes open long enough to apply to the thirtieth job of the day, it’s the source of the gusto you summon to chase the bus to work after dropping your toddler off at daycare, it’s why you pay off the interest on your almost-maxed-out credit card, all because one day you’ll be middle class, really middle class, whatever the fuck that means.
Now, what if I walked in to your living room on one of your rougher days, after you’ve cried out to the universe that you can hardly take your overnight security job anymore, and offered to change everything for the better, like a fairy god daddy? Too good to be true? You bet. You’d probably beat me into a bloody pulp and call the police, or at the very least ask me to leave. But what if I sold you on it, what if I told you things you’ve always known to be true, things you thought were unattainable to you? What if your high school diploma wasn’t cutting it and I told you I could get you into a college that would change your life? Maybe, just maybe, you’d listen.
That’s the schtick that for-profit college admissions representatives use to get you to listen to their pitch. They’re going to change your life, that’s what they say.
For-profit, or proprietary, colleges are dangerous places. The big ones are the University of Phoenix, Corinthian Colleges Inc, Devry, and Kaplan. But there are many more and they sneak up on you.
For-profit colleges don’t literally come banging on your front door, but in some ways they do. Instead they opt for both traditional and nontraditional advertising strategies. Most people are acquainted with them from commercials, radio ads, billboards, subway advertisements, and online banners. It’s the latter, the internet, that provides recruiters at these schools with the leg up. Lead generators, or companies that collect data and then sell it to these schools, target people who click on banners or links about changing their lives through education and getting a higher paying job.
Once the recruiter gets your number, he or she tries to get to know you, asks you about your life, your job, your family, and your struggles. The recruiter might even go as far as to ask a highly personal question like: “don’t you want to change your life?”
Since most people view education as a virtue, they listen to the recruiter. Reading off of a script, these charlatans extol the benefits of a college degree. They’ll go as far as to point to Department of Labor statistics that indicate higher incomes for college-educated workers.
They make the mark feel like he or she can’t waste any more time, and this college, one the target has probably never heard of before, is the ticket out of poverty and a dead-end job. The mark is scheduled for multiple appointments, the school even has someone sit with and guide him or her through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and student loan forms. That means that billions of dollars in taxpayer money goes to these places.
Why are they so bad?
1) They only graduate about ¼ of their students.
2) They account for almost ½ the student loan repayment defaults since 2009 while producing less than ten percent of the students.
3) Many of these schools are open-admission, meaning you need to meet the basic criteria of having a pulse, a social security number, and a high school diploma or GED. They accept students who do not stand a chance academically.
4) There is nothing wrong with giving high-need students opportunity, but for-profit colleges don’t adequately support them. They usually operate with 3 times as many recruiters as student support staff. They spend less than 10% of their budgets on academics and almost 23% on marketing. They basically create subprime students.
5) As profit-seeking entities, they recruit aggressively and pressure students into taking out federal and private loans. After all is said and done, industry wide they net a profit margin of about 19%. For comparison, in 2013 the evil behemoth Walmart saw a net profit margin of about 3%.
6) They drain students’ federal aid, making it harder for them to attend college later.
7) Some are not accredited, meaning even if you earn your degree, it isn’t worth the mountains of debt you’ve piled on.
8) Most students at for-profit colleges are low-income and less likely to have the means to pay off even a small debt, let alone the debt they accumulate at these sham houses. Thanks to federal laws that exempt student loans from bankruptcy, financially-ruined students see their wages and even social security garnished.
9) Recruiters at these colleges must hit enrollment targets, creating a high-pressure situation that is ideal for neither the recruiter nor the student. Recruiters are often dishonest about the school and misleading about job prospects.
10) As profit-seeking institutions, most of their faculty are underqualified part-timers; they might mean well, but they lack the pedagogical skill to remediate students who need a lot of help.
With the specter of student debt looming over 40 million Americans, institutions that recklessly cajole students into horrible situations can’t be left to decimate the future for so many people. Many people hope to start their lives after school - they can’t start anything if these places take them for everything they hope to have.