The Lesson from For-Profit Colleges

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In case you’ve been in Antarctica with limited cell service, you’ve heard of the disgraceful collapse Corinthian “college”, the corporation that has been mascarading as a higher education institution for several decades, preying on low-income, usually minority, individuals promising them a way out of dead-end jobs, while having inadequate accreditation and saddling them with absurd amounts of debt.

The reason why that organization was so successful at tricking and trapping students is because we have all these proven studies that show college graduates earn way more than those with high school diplomas over a lifetime. This company used that information to lure students and convince them that paying for useless training was an investment in their future, even when they knew that their own job placement and salary statistics were overstated/misleading.

While we know that college graduates do earn more on average, that doesn’t change the fact that a degree is not a universal guarantee of high earnings. Other factors are crucial in determining your earning potential, such as your grades, your major, the industry you choose, the reputation of your Alma Mater, your professional network/contacts, the overall strength of both the economy at the national and local level. Matriculation is only one of the necessary steps.

But this is for those who want to go to school. What about those who don’t want to go to school? Those for whom traditional schooling isn’t possible either because of their limited capabilities or their lack of interest in lengthy papers, class presentations, and final exams? Should we as a society simply accept that they won’t be high earners? Even if we settle for that, it doesn’t mean they would. That unwilllngness to settle for minimal wages due to lack of formal training, combined with our complacency at creating non-traditional educational paths to help them develop useful skills contributes to turning these poor students into prey.

Our society doesn’t respect or value non-traditional schools. We don’t place any value on trade schools or alternative secondary education as we should. Not long ago I found out that my cousin may not be on track to graduate on time and may have changed majors for the third time in 3 years. He also made some comments that a discerning ear would understand that he is suggesting he’s not interested in traditional schooling. As someone with a graduate degree, I know that few people will make it far in life if they limit themselves only to a high school education. That is after all why I sacrificed my time and invested thousands into going back to school even with a full-time job on my plate. However, I would not dare ask him to explore alternative options as I know this would upset my family greatly and, while it sounds extreme, might even ostracize me.

While my cousin doesn’t attend a for-profit school, if he does not graduate, I do not see how the results will be much different. He will still be saddled with debt from 3 years worth of tuition attending a school to appease his family, while having no worthwhile degree to improve his earning potential. If anything, this might even put him in a less favorable position. These questionable schools have a track record on preying on students and they subsequently lost their accreditation and have been filing for bankruptcy left and right since 2015. Unlike them, he attends an accredited school with acceptable retention and graduation rates. He will not get the same sympathy victims of Corinthian Colleges got. He will not be able to sue, he will not get his loans pardoned and he will not be given the benefit of the doubt.

So what could he have done? Not going the traditional path would not necessarily doom him to predatory for profit schools. He could have done full-time sales, started in real estate, became a contractor, etc. Although these have the potential of being good paying jobs for those who are dedicated, they don’t have the “prestige” of saying you have a bachelor’s degree. They don’t put you on a path of becoming a physician or attorney. And to those who still insist on valuing people based on 1950’s standards, they will impose restrictions on their children that drive them to make life ruining decisions.

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