dana l stringer

Dana L. Stringer

*It’s graduation season—that time of the year when diploma candidates impatiently sit through commencement addresses while family and friends boisterously cheer from the stands.   Candidates transition into graduates after proudly walking across the platform to receive their diplomas (or at least the folder that will hold their diplomas.)   They then turn their tassel from the right side of the cap to the left, toss their caps into the air, and begin their journey into the future.

For high school graduates, the future may mean college, the military, trade school or a low-wage job.  For some college graduates, the future may mean either graduate school or a job in the workforce.  However, for a majority of college graduates, the future means little or no job prospects, a dismal job market, and a major student loan debt to repay.

And while graduates fiercely compete for jobs and struggle to repay their student loans, aggressive admissions representatives and advisors at for-profit career colleges are polishing their sales pitches and strategically targeting low-income minorities (blacks and Latinos) to recruit into their high-cost programs.

On the surface this sounds like a good thing—providing low-income minorities with an opportunity to attend college.   After all, education is good, right?  Well, for many graduates and dropouts of for-profit colleges, many are shouting from the mountaintop of joblessness and student loan debt, “Buyer Beware.”

In recent years, the for-profit college industry has been heavily scrutinized and under investigation for its predatory practices of soliciting and deceptively recruiting the economically disadvantaged and individuals unlikely to be admitted into traditional colleges.

Some for-profit colleges have been accused of operating in the same fashion that predatory lenders did several years ago when they exploited minorities with subprime mortgages, and urged them to borrow money for a home that the buyer, the seller, and even the lender knew would be difficult to repay once interest rates adjusted.   And yet the buyer was able to purchase a piece of the “American Dream,” realtors made their quotas and commissions, and banks and lenders made a profit whether the buyer ultimately benefited from the transaction or not.

In the case of for-profit colleges, low-income minorities are often targeted and aggressively pursued by these colleges because they are more likely to receive federal student financial aid which in turn gets funneled into the schools.

In 2010, these schools received a total of $24.6 billion in loans and $7.5 billion in Pell Grants.  They enrolled only 11 percent of all higher-education students, but received nearly 25 percent of all federal financial aid.

Unfortunately, it’s usually too late when most graduates of for-profit colleges discover that they were basically exploited by a system designed to get government and taxpayer dollars in order to fund an overpriced, subpar education that neglected to offer any assistance toward job placement.   Students were sold on the idea that these schools had high job placement rates, and that salaries and earnings from these jobs would be sufficient enough to repay their student loan debt.

Some of these colleges have been investigated for fraudulently reporting inflated job placement rates while the majority of their graduates remain in low-wage jobs, and more than 40% of their students default on their student loans.

It wasn’t until a year ago, when I relocated to a coastal community and applied for a position at a local career college, that I learned firsthand the aggressive nature of their sales and marketing tactics.

During the interview, the regional director made it perfectly clear that they specifically targeted minorities from low-income and disadvantaged communities.  She mentioned that many of their prospective students could barely read, fill out forms properly, were considered “At-Risk”, and that many were high school dropouts and had very little knowledge and experience in financial matters.  If hired, it would be my job to practically chase them down daily and get them enrolled.  She also implied that it would require pressuring them into completing, signing and submitting the necessary forms for admission and financial aid.  She went on to tell me that it was not my responsibility to ensure that they attended or passed their classes.

Quite honestly, I was relieved when I was not offered the position because I realized that their enrollment policy had more to do with quantity rather than quality.  Generating a profit for the school was more important than legitimate progress for its student body.

Interestingly enough, for-profit colleges are fighting back, claiming that they are being unfairly singled out while traditional colleges and universities are guilty of operating with similar agendas.   But this could be difficult to argue because traditional colleges and universities actually qualify applicants based upon SAT scores, grade point averages, entrance exams, personal essays and additional assessments, hoping to recruit students who are most likely to succeed.   Most for-profit colleges are solely concerned with yielding a financial profit.

I’m certainly not suggesting that all for-profit colleges have a predatory agenda, or that there are not quality for-profit colleges with legitimate educational success stories.   But for those who intentionally exploit low-income minority students—who show early signs of being either likely to drop out, default on their student loans or not being able to find a decent job within their field upon graduation—are basically setting them up for failure.

Dana Stringer is a freelance writer, playwright, poet and activist based in Southern California.  You may contact her at [email protected].