How For-Profit Institutions Peddle College to the Poor

Why would low-income students pay four or five times more for an education they could receive around the corner at their local community college? And why would they accumulate large amounts of debt to do it, foregoing the ability to later transfer their credits?
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Across the nation, most prospective students applying to selective colleges have wrapped up their applications. They have showcased their test scores, listed numerous examples of leadership and community service, and crafted essays to demonstrate their uniqueness. In essence, they've packaged themselves to "sell" to college admissions gatekeepers, hoping to gain admission. But did you know this experience represents only about one-quarter of all the students who begin college each year? The rest tend to come from lower-income families and will enroll in our community colleges and for-profit colleges later this year. And for the 17 percent who will attend for-profits, the "selling" happens in reverse.

Shockingly, one in every two U.S. colleges/universities is now a for-profit college. Rather than students selling themselves to the college, the for-profits sell their college to the student, using aggressive sales tactics that prey on emotions to convince students to pay an average tuition of nearly $20,000 for a certificate, $35,000 for an associate's, and $65,000 for a bachelor's degree. According to data revealed in a 2012 U.S. Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Senate Report, 96 percent of for-profit students take out student loans averaging over $32,000, and U.S. taxpayers also pay, in the form of over $7 billion in federal Pell Grants.

Who are these students?

In 2010, researchers at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity in D.C. studied for-profit higher education and found these students are much more diverse and disadvantaged than students at traditional public and private non-profit universities. More often than not, they are from racial groups underrepresented in higher education and from families with low to modest incomes and little education, as detailed in the book Higher Ed, Inc.: The Rise of the For-Profit University. In fact, the Institute for Higher Education Policy reports higher percentages of low-income students at for-profits than in public universities .

The problem with this is for-profit graduates experience the lowest economic advantages as a result of their degree, also reported by the Institute for Higher Education Policy. Furthermore, my 2007 book, After Admission, with James Rosenbaum and Ann Person, details a persisting problem -- for-profit students can rarely transfer their credits to traditional universities in the same way credits from community colleges transfer to a higher level degree.

Why would low-income students pay four or five times more for an education they could receive around the corner at their local community college? And why would they accumulate large amounts of debt to do it, foregoing the ability to later transfer their credits? The short answer is: for-profit colleges often do a better job of attracting and enrolling such students than community colleges. The for-profits specifically train staff to reel students in then pressure them to quickly close the deal. Low-income students tend to have less familiarity with college options generally and are more likely to have had negative experiences with more traditional public and non-profit institutions. So they tend to be easy targets.

My recent research examined the staff training, organizational practices, and students' admissions and enrollment experiences at for-profits. A former for-profit admissions recruiter teamed with me to analyze the training manual for admissions and recruitment staff at a national for-profit franchised corporation. We paired these findings with interviews conducted with students who had chosen to attend a for-profit college. Our findings revealed that for-profits, after spending heavily to recruit students, are immediately responsive and willing to quickly establish personal relationships with prospective students to 'sell' their college.

Once students express interest, our research showed how staff is trained in intentional and explicit sales tactics to shape what we termed an "admissions encounter" with students. The encounter is designed to get students to open up about their hopes, fears, past experiences and failures. Staff then capitalizes on this to convince them that their college is their silver-bullet solution, and pressure the student to enroll on the spot, including all necessary financial aid paperwork.

In contrast, prospective students have to make numerous attempts to extract information from community colleges and are often passed to another department or referred to the website -- overall, a very unwelcoming and bureaucratic experience. And financial aid procedures and policies present an especially discouraging stumbling block without staff ready to assist low-income and nontraditional students.

While community colleges provide an open door, they need to make sure they are not losing out to the open arms tactics of the for-profits. The high number of low-income students choosing to attend for-profit institutions signals a crisis in how our traditional public and non-profit colleges and universities are failing to serve low-income students.

We need to pay more attention to our public open access community colleges and broad access universities, applying resources to improve the way students, especially lower-income students, encounter such institutions. We should think more carefully about students' first contact with these colleges to make sure they experience a more helpful and 'open arms' attitude from the staff they encounter. Streamlining highly decentralized bureaucratic procedural obstacles is one key to accomplishing this goal, while the value of establishing a one-to-one relationship to help guide students through the oftentimes confusing and complex application, admission, financial aid, and enrollment process should not be underestimated, especially the financial aid process upon first enrollment and every year thereafter.

Let's follow the lead of those public colleges that succeed in doing this well, to ensure more students see community colleges as viable, welcoming options.

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