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Why lower-income students are drawn to for-profit schools

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

October 24, 2016

CHICAGO — Richard Green graduated from high school 20 years ago, eager to get a college degree in computer science and launch a career.

So when a recruiter from what was then DeVry Institute of Technology told him he could finish his bachelor’s degree in three years instead of four, he signed on. "You want to be something by a certain time frame," said Green, of the Chicago suburb of Matteson.

But that decision ended up long delaying the independence Green sought.

Green, 38, just this summer went through the graduation ceremony at Prairie State College, an area community college, posing for a photo in his cap and gown draped in more than a dozen honors medals and stoles.

He is proud of his accolades. But he also says he is on food stamps. He still has two classes to finish to get his degree and juggles school with part-time jobs at GameStop and overnight shifts at 7-Eleven.

As Green continues to pay down federal loans he took out to attend DeVry, the life he hoped to jump-start still struggles to get off the ground.

"I shouldn’t have to go through all that trouble just to get to where I need to go," he said.

Students seeking to improve their lot in life often look to college for a leg up, but a lack of information and an urgency to land a job can drive youth from lower-income communities to enroll in for-profit trade schools they often can’t afford.

Students trying to climb out of poverty tend to receive less guidance about their college choices than their more well-heeled peers. Those who opt for for-profit schools sometimes find themselves in greater debt while enrolled in programs that are less flexible when it comes to shifting gears or transferring credits.

As a result, big generational gains in high school completion are thwarted at the college juncture.

"What we’re seeing here is a real loss of potential," said Stefanie DeLuca, an associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who has studied the issue.

The for-profit industry, whose reputation has taken a beating in recent years with a spate of fraud investigations, lawsuits and tightening regulations, said its purpose is the opposite.

"Our schools provide that bridge to a better skill, a better income, a real place in the middle class," said Steve Gunderson, CEO of Career Education Colleges and Universities, an industry trade group. Without them, he said, "for many of these students there would be no chance."

DeLuca co-authored a study, published in the October issue of the Sociology of Education, that examined the post-secondary decisions of low-income black 15- to 24-year-olds in Baltimore.

She found many of the 150 students in the study who ended up at for-profit trade schools were trying to make the best decision they could with little information beyond what they saw on advertisements. Most had modest goals, wishing to become truck drivers or certified nursing assistants, and thought they were choosing short college programs that laid out a straightforward path to a career.

Yet many didn’t end up finishing.

Like other 18-year-olds, some discovered the career they thought they wanted wasn’t the right fit. But transitioning from phlebotomy to an HVAC technician career track is not as easy as switching majors at a nonprofit college, and some had to start over in new programs, or even new schools, racking up more expenses.

Those who completed their postsecondary programs often found themselves in jobs that didn’t pay a living wage, DeLuca said.

DeVry, now known as DeVry University, said DeLuca’s research doesn’t apply to the school because the research focused on certificate programs, not the degree programs that DeVry offers in business, technology and health care technology. DeVry’s students are "busy, working adults with a millennial mindset, who are often balancing the demands of school, work and family life," said spokeswoman Donna Shaults. DeVry is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, the nation’s largest regional accreditor.

Still, to Green, who felt he did "what you’re supposed to do to have the American dream," the experience was disheartening.

Green, raised by a single mom in Chicago until they moved to suburban Matteson when he was 9, dropped out of DeVry in 1999 just a few classes shy of completion because he was told he was no longer eligible for financial aid.

He joined the Army for its loan repayment program, but left on a medical discharge before he could take advantage of it. He spent the next decade working various jobs in retail and call centers in an effort to dig out of debt before starting school over again.

He wishes his high school counselors had more proactively given advice around the pros and cons of different types of schools.

With college cast as a must for upward mobility, the number of students enrolling in for-profit schools has risen dramatically over the past 15 years. And low-income minority students are 3 1/2 times more likely to enroll in for-profit institutions than higher-income students, according to a 2015 study from the Pell Institute, a research institute that examines educational issues.

But students leave for-profit colleges with higher levels of debt than students from the other types of institutions. On average, attending a two-year for-profit institution costs a student four times as much as attending a community college, according to the Department of Education.

Student loan default rates are also two to three times higher for borrowers who attend for-profit schools than those who attend private nonprofit and public four-year schools, according to a 2015 study by the nonprofit College Board.

Yet all that money doesn’t get them far. Six years after initial enrollment, 23 percent of students who had graduated or otherwise left for-profit colleges were unemployed and seeking work compared with about 15 percent in the other institutions, according to a 2013 paper from Harvard researchers.

To be sure, the quality of for-profit programs ranges widely and some are well-regarded. Graduation rates for two-year for-profit schools are higher than for community colleges.

But claims of fraud have recently led to the demise of some of the industry’s big players.

Last month, Carmel, Ind.-based ITT Technical Institute ceased operations at its more than 130 campuses after the Education Department cut off access to federal financial aid for new students following investigations into whether ITT misled students about future job prospects and might have accepted students who weren’t qualified.

Last year, California-based Corinthian Colleges closed or sold most of its 107 campuses and liquidated its assets through Chapter 11 bankruptcy under pressure from regulators, who alleged deceptive practices.

DeVry, headquartered in suburban Chicago, this year was warned by the Education Department over its marketing claims and sued by the Federal Trade Commission over how an ad portrayed graduates’ employment rates and earnings. Shaults said DeVry believes it measured the outcomes "in a sound, rational and transparent manner." The case is pending.

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Gunderson, of the career college trade association, said he doesn’t defend schools that engage in bad conduct. Still, he said, undergraduate enrollment at for-profits has dropped by 100,000 per year over the last five years because of what he called "ideological attacks" by federal regulators.

DeLuca said "information poverty" in high school leaves students unaware of their options.

Chicago resident Maria Masso, 34, said she knew nothing about college when she graduated from high school in 2001.

Her father was an electrician and her mother owned a cleaning company. Both were immigrants from Mexico who did not have college degrees; they offered support but not much advice.

Masso waited tables, but wanted more, and recalls she was telling that to a friend at a coffee shop one day when a recruiter from Westwood College, a for-profit chain based in California, overheard and engaged her in conversation. Masso said the brochures were enticing and, best of all, said she could finish in two years.

Masso said her thinking was, "Let me just hurry up and get my degree and get to work so that in two years I will be more useful to my parents."

She started on a sales and marketing track, but soon discovered it wasn’t the right fit so she switched to health care to become a medical assistant. She loved it, and hoped that once she got her associate’s degree she could transfer to a four-year school for a bachelor’s.

But when she approached four-year schools to pursue her next steps, she was told they couldn’t accept her credits. Westwood did, as promised, offer resources to seek jobs, but Masso recalls one employer losing interest once he saw the school on her application, commenting that the certificate she received there "doesn’t count."

"Every day there was a lack of confidence because I’m just another person who only finished high school," Masso said.

Westwood shuttered in March.

Masso is now at Malcolm X College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago, where she is studying to become a certified nursing assistant. She hopes to eventually get a master’s degree to become a nurse practitioner, a career that pays a median salary of more than $97,000 in the Chicago metro area; the median for nursing assistants is $27,000.

Programs have emerged to fill the information void. OneGoal, which works with 5,000 students in Chicago Public Schools, helps students find their best college fit and supports them from the start of their junior year of high school through their freshman year of college.

OneGoal counselors advise students to keep expenses and loans to a minimum, said Laura Cummings, senior managing director of programming.

They also teach students to look at each school’s data and are advised, for example, to ensure that the graduation rate for under-represented minorities is close to the graduation rate of the school at large, Cummings said.

A big problem with lack of information is that students aim low. Of the most competitive Chicago Public Schools students, 38 percent of those who matched with selective colleges ended up going to undermatched schools, said Regina Abesamis, a postsecondary coach at Network for College Success, a program that advises schools on how to best counsel students about their postsecondary options.

For-profit schools are particularly good at marketing, offering the best trinkets at college fairs, and the attention recruiters lavish on students can distract them from better fits, Abesamis said.

"For a student who is first generation … when someone is seeking you out, you feel important and like someone wants you," she said.

Alexis Murray, 19, said she felt armed with good information when she made her college choice.

Murray, who lives outside Chicago and aims to be a chef, wanted badly to attend Kendall College, a for-profit school in the city well-regarded for its culinary program. But her OneGoal counselor urged her to consider the cost and the commute, which would have taken her two hours each way.

Murray now is on her way to getting her associate degree at Kennedy-King College in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, which houses the culinary and hospitality path in the City Colleges system.

She doesn’t yet know if she will transfer to a four-year school or go straight to work. What she does know is that she has options.

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