For-profit Trade Schools Offer More Debt, Fewer Jobs

For-profit Trade Schools Offer More Debt, Fewer Jobs

Students from disadvantaged neighborhoods are often drawn to for-profit trade schools after high school, seeing them as the quickest route to jobs. A new study finds the streamlined, focused curriculum that makes for-profit schools appealing is also the reason many poor students drop out, however.

A new study of 150 black youths from some of Baltimore’s lowest-income neighborhoods shows that young people who attended for-profit institutions ended up in more debt and with fewer job prospects than they might have had they attempted two- or four-year nonprofit schools.

The findings, which shed new light on what attracts students to for-profit institutions and why they struggle to complete certifications, appear in the journal Sociology of Education.

“The quick jump into for-profit schools really precludes other options that might be less costly and have a bigger return,” says coauthor Stefanie DeLuca, associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. “These young people are vulnerable to the flashy ads for these schools and lured in by how quickly they could get jobs.”

Most of the young people in the study, 53 percent, pursued certifications at for-profit trade schools that offer occupational training programs in fields like cosmetology, auto mechanics, computer networking, and phlebotomy. Most students who enroll in these programs are very low-income, and studies show the number of disadvantaged students choosing for-profit programs is increasing.

In Baltimore, the researchers interviewed 150 people in 2010. They were 15 to 24 years old and grew up in neighborhoods with poverty rates exceeding 50 percent and with African-American populations of at least 80 percent. When they were born, most lived in high-rise public housing and were on public assistance. Half grew up with one or both parents suffering from addictions and about the same number had a parent who had been incarcerated.

These young people had very grounded career expectations; most hoped to find working-class jobs, the research shows. And because of their family and financial circumstances, they wanted jobs as soon as possible.


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For-profit trade schools appeal to a desire quickly get to work, the study shows. With little to no career counseling in high school, the young people researched education options on their own and relied heavily on information they heard during TV commercials for for-profit schools, which emphasized the short duration of their programs.

Although most of the for-profit trade programs lasted less than two years, they were expensive. Unlike nonprofit schools, they didn’t allow undecided students to switch courses of study once a program was paid for upfront. Once enrolled, the young people tended to realize they’d committed to occupations they either weren’t qualified for or didn’t enjoy. They dropped out, or hopped from one program to another, or tried taking several programs at a time, racking up debt and increasing chances they would quit it all before earning certification.

Of the young people who enrolled in a for-profit college, only 31 percent earned certification by the time the study ended.

Although completion rates at community colleges were even worse, the students who chose for-profit colleges racked up more debt and their loan default rates were much higher, the study shows. In Baltimore, the cost of attending the two most popular for-profit schools was two to four times that of attending the most popular community colleges, the study found.

“Some of these students might have been better suited for a two-year community college, which is a lot less expensive, or some could have gone straight into a four-year program,” DeLuca says. “This is about how young people in some of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods are trying to navigate the transition to a career with very little information.”

Megan M. Holland, assistant professor of educational leadership at the University at Buffalo is coauthor of the study. Support for the work came from the William T. Grant Foundation and the Century Foundation.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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