Predatory for-profit colleges are back. It’s time to stop them

When the pandemic struck, consumer advocates and academics in higher education issued a grim warning: predatory for-profit colleges were on the verge of a revival. A year later, those predictions have proven to be depressingly correct.

While community colleges have struggled to enroll, for-profit college attendance has skyrocketed, especially among adult learners. Lax federal oversight during the Trump presidency accelerated the surge. Left unchecked, this trend threatens both the stability and fairness of the US economic recovery.

To counter it, state and federal leaders must play both defensive and offensive, clamping down on for-profit predators and offering better alternatives to Americans who desperately want more opportunities through higher education.

In difficult economic times, the unemployed and underemployed workers often turn to education for full employment. In recent recessions, leaders of unscrupulous for-profit universities have greeted them with open arms and with noble and fantastic promises.

Related: COLUMN: Coming Changes Should Be ‘Music To Your Ears’, Higher Education Innovators Say

Today we watch the same movie on repeat. In fall 2020, for-profit enrollments among first-time adult students aged 25 and over jumped more than 13% while community college enrollments fell more than 36%, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The consequences of students choosing for-profit colleges over community colleges could be dire, especially for students historically marginalized by America’s higher education system.

Compared to their public and nonprofit counterparts, for-profit institutions disproportionately enroll black and Latino students. But they charge about five times the tuition and annual fees of community colleges and account for half of all student defaults, although they only serve 10 percent of all students.

Many for-profit colleges leave most of their students worse off than they were before they enrolled.

Related: Left Behind By Direct For-Profit College Lending

The federal government can and should take several executive and legislative measures to protect students. Among these: the reinstatement of gainful employment rules, which ensure that students who complete career college programs earn enough to pay off their debt.

Others include implementing enforcement measures to prevent colleges receiving federal student assistance from defrauding or abusing their students and holding executives personally responsible for predatory behavior.

But we also can’t ignore what the data is showing us about student demand. Working adults crave educational opportunities that are flexible enough to fit their lives.

If we are to meet this demand with quality, accountability and oversight, we need strong public investments in new educational models.

Historically, many adult learners have passed through a gap in our higher education and workforce development systems. Colleges provide the skills and degrees students need for long-term security, but they traditionally work on a semester system, require students to learn at specific times and places, and are less responsive to changing demands of l ‘economy.

Many for-profit colleges leave most of their students worse off than they were before they enrolled.

Workforce development programs provide fast and flexible training to get displaced workers back to work, but often without actually developing the skills workers need to break the cycle of precarious employment and unemployment.

For-profit organizations have skillfully exploited this gap by offering flexible online programs tailored to specific career paths. But while many charge high tuition fees and offer shoddy quality, Americans will continue to turn to them unless we offer high quality, affordable and affordable public alternatives.

As the pandemic has shown, simply uploading existing content to a website and calling it “online education” is not the solution. Instead, we need programs designed from the ground up around the needs of working adults who have lost their jobs or who need a better job.

This means programs that are systematically tailored to the job market so that students leave with skills that allow them to secure stable and well-paying jobs. This means that students can take lessons at their own pace and on their own schedule, even when they are planning concerts, raising children, or caring for parents and grandparents.

And, of course, that means the open access, low cost, and public oversight that have made community colleges a vital opportunity engine in America for decades.

This kind of innovation can seem scary and risky. Not all ideas will come true. But the biggest risk is not taking action at all. We know what lies in this path: Millions of Americans turn to for-profit universities that rarely deliver on their lofty promises.

We owe it to potential students to give real oversight back to the for-profit industry and invest in high-quality, low-cost community college and workforce development programs that truly provide a path to a better future.

Aaron Ament is president and co-founder of the National Student Defense Legal Network. Ajita Menon is President and CEO of Calbright College.

This story on for-profit college regulation was produced by The Hechinger report, an independent, non-profit news organization focused on inequalities and innovation in education. Sign up for The Hechinger newsletter.

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