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The College Degree Trap: The profit-minded take advantage of the disadvantaged

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David came from an immigrant family where he was one of eight children; his parents worked in sweatshops. His dad had a second job at night. Little time was spent with either of his parents, who worked multiple jobs to support the family as they encouraged higher education.

School, go to school,” both parents would tell him, often in a less-than-soft voice as he pleaded to play basketball rather than do algebra. “School is your ticket out of this place we live,” his mother would say as she was near tears.

Neither David’s mother nor father had gone farther than sixth-grade in elementary school. His father was barely literate, but both subscribed to the mantra that working hard had its rewards. For David’s family, he was to be the first to go to high school, to graduate from college and become a professional. He would not spend his life cleaning toilets or busing tables at the local diner.

College was still a dream. There was no money, no relatives who could help, and things were looking dismal for David. Then came the day a month before his high school graduation when he leafed through a magazine. “Get a college degree in two years,” it screamed to him. Two years and he could be on his way to higher pay, prestige, and a real future for himself and his parents.

How could he do it? No worry there because all he had to do was attend an informational meeting at a local hotel where he’d learn all about it. The “admissions counselors” from the school would help him through all of it, and he could sign up right there with a reasonable down payment of $50 for his admission seat. David couldn’t believe how lucky he was. The prayers of his parents were answered with one ad in a well-known magazine.

Copyright: Nipon Temsakun

The dawn of online education

Online education kicked open the higher-education door, and the newly minted students signed up. Naive, perhaps, but the original school administrators had goodness in their hearts. They were teachers who were thinking of radically changing the inequality of higher education.

A change came after the first school was set up, and it morphed into an online school. The market for online college services with students with little time for face-to-face instruction was enormous. Considering how many people couldn’t attend classes for degrees or didn’t have the necessary preparation for the classes, it was a no-brainer and a winner.

And school loans were quickly handed out to these students. Of course, no one bothered to tell them they’d never get out of debt from these loans.

The scent of opportunity and money was in the air. It didn’t take long for the predictable to happen. The schools began to grow into the hundreds with tens of thousands of students all over the world. “Colleges” grew from technical or secretarial school origins, and “universities” grew out of these “colleges.”

Employers saw advantages in encouraging employees (mainly teachers) to complete master’s degrees. Increases in pay and promotions were dangled for those with advanced degrees.

The teachers, and soon the military, was aggressively recruited by the schools, and they came in droves. The military had educational benefits the schools yearned to add to their coffers. Only years later would anyone know the reality of these new schools and that the promises they held out were often made up of thin air.

Schools began offering their stock, which was snapped up by administrative staff in a special offering and then to the broader stock market. It was a new beginning, and everyone wanted in on the moneymaker. Stockholders would make money as the students piled up the debt.

Professional advances weren’t the only lure. These students could gain access to careers beyond their wildest hopes. They could become professionals, not merely education professionals, but in healthcare (nursing, psychology, and soon medical schools were promised), higher education and technological fields like computer programming. Cream to kittens couldn’t have been more seductive.

Corporate raiders swooped in on the unwary and picked them to the bones. Schools for the underprivileged seeking a college degree were prime for corporate yearnings. Think “Wall Street” or “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” As the infamous Gordon Gekko said, “Greed is good.” For these school aggregators, it was perfect.

One thing the corporate types had going for them was that these students were uneducated in the real world of college. They were encouraged to keep the stars in their eyes as they signed on for more loans each term and were reassured that their new jobs would help pay the debt off quickly. New cars, homes, and vacations for the family were within their grasp.

Counting on the uninformed

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Weeding out the unlikely who wouldn’t easily fall for the wonders of their easy-to-complete programs (aka those whose parents had graduated from college), the schools cloaked themselves in the mantle of helping the underprivileged.

Socialism, with its tinge of Communism (which it wasn’t), was an unpalatable state of affairs in a world steeped in greedy corporate capitalism. But the first school had been built on a socialist ideal where the people participated in the school system and benefitted from it.

Now it would be possible to advance up the economic ladder. These students wanted a foot up, and the schools offered a life preserver to help those who could ill-afford the fees, books, transportation, and time off to attend school during the day.

Students were primarily from the poor, the outcasts, the immigrants, and any who were targets of racism. No one in their families had ever gone to college. It was a world they didn’t understand. The groups at whom the new schools were aimed then struck gold; President Johnson in 1965 signed the Higher Education Act.

Grants and school loan programs were to be the source of much-needed funding for students, and the nascent for-profit schools panned for that gold. Seemingly, a win-win for all, it turned out to be more so for the investors.

Not everyone in Congress favored portions of the Act as it related to the military and military bases. “The Senate provision would essentially ensure that institutions, including for-profits, can get access and provide counseling to their military-service students. But because of the vagueness of the provision, opponents of the measure fear the affected for-profit institutions will use aggressive or abusive tactics to recruit or mislead service members. For instance, the provision doesn’t limit for-profits’ access, once on base, to service members who are already enrolled at the institutions.”

As stated by Senator Dick Durbin, “The provision opens the floodgates to military bases and service members for for-profit college recruiters. Not only is the provision harmful, but it is unnecessary. [Institutions of higher education] already have the ability to gain access to military installations for certain legitimate educational activities. I will work with others who are opposed to this provision to get it removed in conference.

The for-profits won, gained access, and set up offices on military bases where they had consultant staff teach courses. Most of the classes, however, were online with limited attendance at weekend or summer sessions.

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Who played the college-recruitment game?

Attracting underprivileged students, and benefiting from their ability to apply successfully and receive grants and student loans, was as simple as taking ads in popular media. Not only were the for-profit colleges promising pie-in-the-sky benefits, but prestigious institutions were involved in this advertising. Be clear here; not all for-profits are tainted entities in terms of courses, charges, and degrees granted.

As stated in one article, “The problem is that the prestige schools have undermined the case for making it easy to go after the bad ones, which just pretend to provide an education without really delivering it. Though most colleges and universities mean well, they are also responsible for false advertising and don’t always deliver the education they promised. If all institutions of higher education were held to higher standards, it would be easier legally to penalize the worst.”

One for-profit powerhouse, Corinthian Colleges, provided a mind-blowing example of how they contributed to the current $1.3 trillion in outstanding student debt. “At its height in 2010, it had more than 110,000 students, 105 campuses around the country and revenue of $1.7 billion, most of it in federal loans.”

A US Senate investigation for the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee described the discrepancy between Corinthians fees and that of local colleges. For example, at Corinthians’ Everest College, “an associate of science degree in paralegal studies cost about $41,000; meanwhile, at Santa Ana College, a nearby public community college, the same community college program cost about $2,400,” according to the Senate report.

Another of their schools charged $23,000 for a medical assistant program while a local college community charged less than $3,700. It was all outlined in detail in a 2012 report.

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The diploma gamble

Success in any school program is capped with graduation, a diploma, and a good GPA (grade point average). Once a student takes that walk to the stage to receive their “sheepskin,” a new path in their life should begin, but it’s not the happy ending everyone envisioned.

The success stories are there, but so are the ones that tell of student difficulty in earning a degree as their debt mounted. The college diploma bubble was about to burst, however, and angry students, indebted for the rest of their lives, were suing. The government, too, took action and charged deceptive ads.

The for-profits hadn’t always been upfront in recruiting students. “The University of Phoenix and its parent company, Apollo Education Group, agreed to pay $191 million for using deceptive advertising to recruit students. The school is one of the largest in the country and enrolls over 100,000 students.”

As stated in the New York Times article, the companies were “touting partnerships with companies including Microsoft, Twitter and Adobe. It suggested the school worked with those companies to create job opportunities for students, even though there was no such agreement, investigators found.”

A good portion of the companies’ income was directly from efforts initiated by the US government to assist the underprivileged and military. “The University of Phoenix received over $197 million in Pell Grants alone in just the 2017–2018 academic year. That’s in addition to federal student loans and GI Bill benefits.”

A former Marine Corps. officer has seen her dream unrealized. “Six years after enrolling in a distance learning program with one of the nation’s best-known for-profit schools, however, Wright, 51, still doesn’t have her degree. She has exhausted the GI Bill benefits she earned from serving 16 years in the military and is $224,000 in debt.”

She is not alone in her disappointment and inability to repay loans that keep accruing interest as she struggles to keep up with payments.

How can a prospective student know what to examine?

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Protecting yourself from predatory schools and agreeing to exorbitant debt without the prospects of a viable career isn’t easy. The fine print, for one, is something to read carefully.

Second, the degree or career you choose today may not be here in 10 years. Jobs are disappearing fast as automation takes over, so position yourself for the future and always, always have more than one skill set to back you up.

Several sources have offered some advice. The list is NOT an exhaustive one. Read through these and then discuss all of the material with someone knowledgeable about the future employment picture, such as a career counselor. You can find free counseling at local high schools or college student services offices. And look at the following too:

Don’t forget to carefully review all financial options (grants, work-study, loans, apprenticeships, etc.)

Photo by Ilya Pavlov on Unsplash

What about computers and artificial intelligence?

Online courses are still viable options for careers. Learning to code doesn’t mean you need a college degree or to be a whiz at math. The only thing you need to know is the order of operations in math. To remember the order, memorize: Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally (PEMDAS). If that sounds troubling, once you watch the video, it will become clear.

Want to learn to code for little or NO COST? That’s possible, too. Websites on the internet offer FREE courses with certificates if you wish to pay for one. The certificates are usually modest in their fees, and you aren’t required to buy one.

You can delve into the most basic courses from Python (Chuck Severance has a great course, and his book is FREE), Ruby, C++, Java, and more in the privacy of your home and at your convenience.

Downloading the videos on the websites presents no problem. The course sites usually permit you to download all their videos directly without any special software. Once downloaded, you can use the videos to refresh your knowledge as many times as you wish. And your course material goes with you wherever you may be anywhere in the world.

Why not look at the courses offered here:

Artificial intelligence will turn everything we know upside down and in a good way. Medicine, teaching, to every type of technology and more. There doesn’t seem to any area where it won’t become dominant and change our lives. Advance your knowledge in this area and it will be to your advantage.

The future is now, and each of us can be a part of it in small or incredible ways if we wish to expend the effort to learn and keep on learning.

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