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The For-Profit College Education: A Not-So-Golden Ticket

By Jennifer Herard

Nontraditional students are often committed and motivated to pursuing postsecondary education, but confront unique challenges. The for-profit college industry has stepped in to fill the demand for education of nontraditional students, but often these schools succeed only in adding to the burdens on nontraditional students.

Nontraditional students—a term that can include those who are working part- or full-time while acquiring an education, student parents, and those who have delayed enrollment—make up a significant part of the overall student population. According to a March 2011 Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) report, nearly a quarter (3.9 million) of postsecondary students in the United States are parents—of which 57 percent are low-income. Women make up a significant portion at 78 percent of single student parents and 81 percent of low-income, single parents.

Low-income, single parents face unique challenges and needs, such as access to affordable child care. But for student parents, the hard-fought earning of a degree can provide a significant payoff in the way of increased earnings and educational outcomes for children in the family. For-profit colleges offer student parents what seems to be a golden ticket, attracting a high proportion of student parents—48 percent of students at for-profit colleges have dependent children, more than double the proportion found at public and not-for-profit institutions. However, for-profit colleges often do not provide adequate support to ensure student parent success.

As a result of a noticeable growth in enrollment, profits, and amounts of financial aid funding at for-profit colleges, Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, launched an investigation in June 2010 with a series of five hearings and a document collection to investigate the industry’s practices.

The investigation revealed that for-profit colleges hire droves of recruiters who often use misleading practices to pull in nontraditional students. Senator Harkin asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate recruiting practices and found  “[r]ecruiters are too often encouraged to hide the ball on matters of cost, transferability of credits, graduation rates, and employment and salary after graduation.”

This is only one of the findings of the investigation that raised red flags, particularly for low-income parents. According to the HELP Committee’s investigation, for-profit colleges are actually six times more expensive than community college and twice that of four-year public schools. Low-income students often take out federal loans in order to pay the exorbitant costs of for-profit colleges and then are not able to complete their program, leaving them saddled with a huge amount of debt and no degree to provide better job opportunities.

Adding to this, once students are enrolled, for-profit colleges often do not make available the support services that nontraditional students need to be successful, such as academic advisors or childcare services.

IWPR hosted a July 25th webinar titled Closing the Financial Gap for Low-Income Student Parents: The Benefits of Integrated Service Delivery on Community College Campuses. Ann Lyn Hall, Director of CNM Connect at Central New Mexico Community College and Kristina Testa-Buzzee, Director of the Family Economic Security Program at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut discussed the ways that their institutions support student parents.

Hall said that bundling services—providing two or three of support services such as public benefits screening, academic advising, and achievement coaches—allows a student to achieve his or her educational outcomes at a better rate than when services are provided in isolation. Surprisingly, student parents at Norwalk Community College reported that coaching services are more valuable to their success than financial services.

For-profit colleges are sinking money into recruitment and that is not a helpful service for student parents who already have the motivation and desire to go to college. Instead, these dedicated students need support staff, such as achievement coaches, to help in navigating the college environment.

Jennifer Herard is the Research Intern with the Student Parent Success Initiative, an Institute for Women’s Policy Research project.

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