Illustration by Linas Garsys
If you’ve ever stayed up late watching television, you’ve probably seen a commercial for a for-profit college — an upbeat person imploring you to do what it takes to take your career to the next level by finishing school. A 30-second advertisement from one of these schools makes getting an education seem manageable, particularly for those who may not have the time, money, or wherewithal to make it in a traditional school. These institutions seem to be their only way to a better life.
However, the problems associated with attending a for-profit college are myriad, according to Tressie McMillan Cottom, an associate professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. The schools are often more expensive than their nonprofit counterparts, and a majority of for-profit college students don’t earn their degrees, Cottom says.
This leaves students from vulnerable populations saddled with debt that they can’t afford. And, those that get a degree or certificate from a for-profit college have lower pay and are more likely to be unemployed and for longer. “The labor market doesn’t pay you for getting it. That’s a real problem,” she says. “The labor market has not shown that it values these credentials.”
Cottom explores for-profit colleges in her book set for release in late February, “Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy.” Her work combines a decade of research and lived experience with for-profit colleges, and she delivers a case for why people go to for-profit colleges, and what it means for the future of America’s labor force.
A Different World
Enrolling and attending a for-profit college is markedly different than attending a public university. Many of the students are unaware of the differences, according to Cottom. “People in for-profit colleges have very little concept of them being that,” she says. She knows this first-hand, because she never thought of herself as working for a for-profit college when she spent years enrolling students as a for-profit employee. Only after going back to school as a sociologist at a traditional college did she realize how stark the differences were between the two types of institutions.
There are other differences as well.
“We think of going to college as this long, administrative process,” Cottom says. That includes things like writing personal statements and filling out a lengthy application. “There’s none of that in the for-profit experience.”
Instead, she says, “most students sign up the day they visit.” She notes that students can pay fees on the spot and be enrolled. They also get extra help filling out financial aid paperwork, using a method called intrusive counseling — closely following up and tracking to make sure the student completes the paperwork, because in the end it ensures that the student actually filed and completed the documents needed for the college to get paid. At least 70 percent of for-profit colleges’ funding comes from federal sources, the Brookings Institute reported in January.
Average costs are higher. The U.S. Department of Education in 2015 reported an average overall cost for a for-profit school per year was $29,300 in 2011-2012. The average cost for a two-year public school was $15,000, and it cost an average of $23,200 to attend a four-year public school that year.
Graduation rates are low at for-profit schools: The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 27 percent of students at private, for-profit schools who entered school in 2008 graduated within six years, compared with 58 percent of students in public schools, and a 60 percent graduation rate overall.
Despite such drawbacks, for-profit schools note that they fill a niche, primarily serving nontraditional students.
“Career colleges such as Virginia College-Richmond meet a clear need for nontraditional students seeking to learn, build skills and advance their education,” according to a statement provided by Virginia College. “Some students find they are better served in a learning environment that offers a flexible, career-focused education.”
The Richmond campus has an enrollment of 400 students in courses including culinary arts, health and medical training, computer networking, business and office classwork. Virginia College adds that most of its students are going back to school later in life, and that their programs provide them with “specialized skills and real-world experience” to advance or enter better careers.
Looking toward the future
Cottom remarks that many of the students at for-profit schools leave with no degree and overwhelmed with debt. “If we don’t come up with a public solution, an affordable, moral public solution for ‘lifelong learning,’ we are eventually shuttling everyone into the market for this kind of credential. It’s just a matter of privilege you have that it hasn’t happened to you yet,” she says.
Cottom advocates for massive debt cancellation for people who have attended for-profits, because the debt has become an insurmountable weight for students who cannot afford it. She also thinks there should be more alternatives for students. “We need to give them an option that is not for-profit colleges.”