Friday, March 21, 2014

How For Profit Schools Hurt Students (Part 2)

 Enrollment Processes are Predatory

1)  The very biggest aspect of enrollment that I found to be predatory is that the students don't understand student loans.  They are signing them up for tens of thousands of dollars in debt (two years at the school I worked at school cost approximately $48,000) without giving them any idea of what a student loan means, what kind of interest they will be paying, or when they will be required to pay it back.  

I can't even tell you how many times I heard students in the library discussing payment and saying they had no idea how much school was costing them.  Several specifically mentioned intending to default on their loans. I realize that it's not a legal requirement that a for profit school educate the general publict on issues regarding personal finance.  But we went out of our way to make sure uneducated students stayed that way.  Don't want to fill out your FAFSA?  Don't even know what a FAFSA is?  Don't worry, an employee will fill it out for you.  Just sign on the dotted line and provide your SSN. 

2)  This leads to an incredibly high default rate, which I'll go into more in my post on why these schools hurt education and communities.  But the enormous debts were also a motivation for students to stay enrolled.  Once a student dropped out (or graduated) he or she would have six months before being required to start repaying their loans.  I sat in countless meetings where we were reminded of the importance of getting "re-entries" (students who re-enroll after having dropped out) and told that one way to convince a student to re-enroll is to emphasize that they'll have to start paying their loans soon - unless they re-enroll and take out another loan.  The same pressure was used to encourage graduates to sign up for another degree. We were counseled to keep them coming to school by using the fear of having to pay their loans, even though re-enrolling meant taking out even more.

3)  Students are pressured to sign up the day they tour the campus.  There are definite practices that are illegal, and, to be fair, I never saw my school break any of those laws.  Employees aren't, for example, allowed to tell students they will make X amount of money when they graduate.  Potential students are, however, strongly encouraged to go ahead and make their financial aid appointment (to take out loans) the day of the tour.  

If a student asks for time to think about it, there are several "encouraging" phrases that a rep can use, along the lines of "Don't you want to do what's best for your family? or "You don't have time to wait for your future to begin".  When a student arrived on campus for a tour, he or she would fill out a questionnaire with contact info, but also with some personal questions about values and life circumstances.  The rep would then use that information to pressure students during the sales pitch.  If you mark that your family is important to you, the rep will focus on how you'll be letting your family down if you don't move forward with your education.  This isn't necessarily illegal, especially if you're sitting on a used car lot.  But in an education setting, it's often not seen as a sales tactic.  It's assumed that employees are giving advice on what's best for students in regard to education, not selling a degree. 

4)  Just like teachers' jobs depend on how many students they pass, student reps' (salespeople) jobs depend on how many students they enroll and how many of those students show up for class at least once (they are only charged if they show up for at least one class).  It doesn't make a difference for the rep whether or not a student succeeds or is even capable of success, just that the student enroll.  So you'd never hear a rep tell a student that maybe it's not the right time for him or her to come to school or that they should put their family first financially.  They would say whatever it took (within legal bounds) to convince a student to sign up right that minute.  

If a student indicated any interest in the school or their contact information was provided by a current student (who would be awarded for his or her "reference"), the rep's job was to continue to contact them until they showed up.  Telemarketing at its worst, to the point that I dreaded answering the phone at the front desk because we were always getting angry calls from people demanding to be taken off our list.  We never complied.

5) Again, I have to bring up the fact that for profit schools have an appeal to a certain demographic.  High achieving high school students aren't dreaming of the day they get to enroll at a for profit.  The targeted demographic consists of those who are at the end of the line in terms of education.  With the exception of a handful of students over the course of my times at the school, students enrolled because they were either incapable of passing an admission exam at any other school or because their social skills/situation kept them from enrolling at another school.  (This is NOT an indication of every for profit school student, but it is true of the majority).  

To be blunt, our target demographic was uneducated and poor.  These were not the kind of people who would be reading the fine print (or really any print).  Many of them were, in my opinion, unable to distinguish between what our school offered and the various forms of government assistance they relied on in all other areas of their lives.  They truly did not understand that we existed for the purpose of making money and they weren't educated enough to see otherwise.

The worst, and most shameful example of predatory enrolling happened with homeless and mentally ill students.  During my five years at the school we enrolled three homeless students that I had knowledge of and at least one recognizably mentally ill student (by mental illness, I don't mean depression, I mean serious, incapacitating mental illness - the student had to be removed by ambulance from the school on one occasion).  At least one of those students did not come to the school for a tour - he came in to ask for a drink of water.  While he was in the lobby, he was approached to enroll.  In this specific instance, I exchanged words with our director over the ethical implications of soliciting a students we knew was homeless.  In the end, I was unable to prove that the rep had solicited the student and was overruled.  The student remained enrolled until he overdosed on something and passed out in the library.  You might think the school kicked him out at that point, but we were still more than willing to continue taking his money.  He just never returned to class.  If I had to pick one of my most guilt-inducing moments from my time at the school, it would be the enrollment of homeless students.

Degrees Often Mean Next to Nothing

1) Because my school was nationally accredited, as opposed to regionally accredited, most credits would not transfer to other schools.  Legally, we were not allowed to tell students they would transfer and, as far as I saw, we never violated that rule.  But it's certainly not information we passed along willingly.  Unless a student specifically asked, it was never stated.  This meant that after you graduated, if you couldn't get a job, your associate's degree wouldn't count at another school.  Forget transferring to a state school to continue your education, more than likely you'd be unable to transfer to the community college down the street.  

2) Lots of companies don't recognize degrees from for profit schools.  One of the largest companies in my area is the TVA.  On more than one occasion I saw their job postings listed on our career board, despite the fact that TVA doesn't recognize our degrees.  They just don't hold up in the real world against degrees from state or community colleges.  And the fact is that there is a good reason.  As we graduated students and worked to form alliances with companies in the area, we were continually burning our own bridges.  We churned out graduates who had degrees and were unable to keep up in the workplace or were socially unable to hold a job (due to addictions, inability to show up for work, lack of respect for authority, etc).  Word gets around, and companies start looking to hire from more dependable schools.

3) Quite a few of the degrees offered do not mean anything in a real life setting.  Getting an Associate's Degree in Criminal Justice is not going to get you any job that you couldn't get with a high school diploma.  Just a few of the unrealistic career expectations I heard from students pursuing AAS degrees in Criminal Justice: lawyer, judge, crime scene investigator, profiler.  No one had bothered telling them that they'd need a career from a completely different college in order to get into grad school for most of those jobs.  The school where I worked even changed its Criminal Justice degree name from Criminal Justice to Criminal and Forensic Technology in order to make it sound more like a television show, even though none of the core courses were changed.

4) Although my school advertised the Career Services benefits to all students, even after graduation, the largest emphasis was placed on putting upcoming graduates in jobs.  In order to maintain accreditation, a certain percentage of each graduating class had to have a job in their field upon graduating.  This sounds like it would work out to benefit students, but students were frequently placed in temporary jobs in order to bypass this rule.  Rather than starting a career, you might be placed in a temporary contracted position, only to find yourself jobless two months after graduation. By then Career Services would be focused on finding jobs for the next graduating class.  There were also many, many graduates who were placed in jobs that were vaguely related to their chosen field, but required nothing more than a GED.  For example, IT grads were placed in temp jobs running computer cables through new construction buildings.  Manual unskilled labor, but because they were dealing with computer cables, they could be marked off as success stories.

Keep Reading:
How For Profit Schools Hurt Their Own Employees, Part 1


  1. I've been reading this series and all I can say is wow! It's mind boggling how this happens - but not really. When deceit and fraud occur on a macro scale, it's amazing how long it will go unchecked, and how, once there is some kind of interventions - how little consequences there are. No one is going to jail for sending young people into a hole that they might never be able to dig themselves out of.

    1. First of all, thanks for reading and letting me know you're reading! I'm relieved to see that I'm not just preaching to an empty church. The lack of consequences faced by for profit school is astonishing. I'm really relieved to see some upcoming legislation that may limit some of their spending power.

  2. I am so curious about what the name of the school is.

    I have a friend that is going to school for nursing, and I have a strong feeling that she is wasting a whole lot of time & money because I don't think the school is real school. So sad and so frustrating that businesses like this are even allowed to call themselves schools.

    1. Tell your friend the most important thing she can do is to check into her school's accreditation. National accreditation is a bad sign. Also, in the nursing sector, she's going to want to be sure that she's getting experience in an actual hospital setting. There's a for profit school expose from Nightline called College, Inc. that deals some with the for profit nursing programs. It's available free online - you should have her check it out.