Dashed hopes, big debt

Our view: For-profit tech­ni­cal and trade schools come with hefty price tags that cheat dis­ad­van­taged mi­nor­ity stu­dents of the fu­ture they seek

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND VOICES -

In­re­cent years, grow­ing num­bers of low-in­come and mi­nor­ity high school grad­u­ates from Bal­ti­more’s most dis­ad­van­taged neigh­bor­hoods have en­rolled in for-profit trade and tech­ni­cal schools. Many be­lieve the schools’ stream­lined cur­ricu­lums are their fastest route to a job or ca­reer. But a re­cently pub­lished study by re­searchers at the Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity and the State Univer­sity of New York at Buf­falo has found that far too of­ten those hopes end in dis­ap­point­ment. Their data showed that more than two-thirds of stu­dents at for-profit trade schools in the Bal­ti­more area drop out be­fore ob­tain­ing a cer­tifi­cate, leav­ing them with large debts and few job prospects even after hav­ing paid many times what it would have cost them to en­roll in a two- or four-year non­profit col­lege or univer­sity.

The re­port looked at 150 young peo­ple in Bal­ti­more who chose to con­tinue their post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion at area for-profit trade schools. Their fam­ily cir­cum­stances, over­crowded hous­ing and ten­u­ous fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tions lent ur­gency to their de­sire to find sta­ble em­ploy­ment quickly rather than pur­sue a col­lege de­gree, and they were ea­ger to find work in fields like auto me­chan­ics, cos­me­tol­ogy, med­i­cal as­sis­tance and HVAC ser­vice, which they hoped they could qual­ify for after less than two years of vo­ca­tional train­ing.

Nearly all the youth in the study had grown up in dis­tressed in­ner-city neigh­bor­hoods with high rates of poverty and vi­o­lent crime. Sixty-eight per­cent had par­ents with less than high school ed­u­ca­tions, and most had lived on pub­lic as­sis­tance in high-rise pub­lic hous­ing. About half of them had par­ents who strug­gled with drug or al­co­hol ad­dic­tion, and half had a par­ent who was in­car­cer­ated dur­ing their child­hood. Other stud­ies have con­firmed that among all poor and mi­nor­ity stu­dents, the path out of poverty for young Bal­ti­more­ans like them is among the most dif­fi­cult in the na­tion.

Yet the study found that the very rea­sons that for-profit trade schools seem so at­trac­tive to low-in­come and mi­nor­ity stu­dents are also the rea­sons why so many of them drop out. The schools’ stream­lined cur­ricu­lums of­fer lit­tle flex­i­bil­ity for stu­dents to switch to an­other course of study if they re­al­ize later that they aren’t qual­i­fied for or don’t like the one they had al­ready paid for up­front. When that hap­pened, they tended to leave school, hop from one pro­gram to an­other or try tak­ing sev­eral pro­grams at the same time, all the while pil­ing on debt and in­creas­ing their chances of drop­ping out.

More­over, few of the stu­dents, most of whom got their in­for­ma­tion about post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion from watch­ing the schools’ slick tele­vi­sion ads, re­al­ized at the time that they were putting them­selves in an un­ten­able fi­nan­cial po­si­tion. Most came from poorly per­form­ing high schools where they re­ceived lit­tle or no ca­reer or col­lege coun­sel­ing. Even though the jobs they sought were in rel­a­tively mod­est, work­ing-class oc­cu­pa­tions, their en­roll­ment in costly, for-profit trade schools ac­tu­ally put their ca­reer goals fur­ther than ever out of reach.

The study sug­gests that these stu­dents could have done far ITT Tech­ni­cal In­sti­tute closed its doors after the U.S. Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion banned the use of fed­eral stu­dent aid at the for-profit col­lege. bet­ter had they en­rolled in tra­di­tional non­profit col­leges or uni­ver­si­ties, and at lower cost in most cases. But those op­tions sim­ply weren’t on their radar. Teach­ers and prin­ci­pals put great em­pha­sis on prepar­ing stu­dents for col­lege, but young peo­ple whose cir­cum­stances make them want to work im­me­di­ately after high school are of­ten given short shrift. Ed­u­ca­tors clearly need to take greater steps to­ward warn­ing stu­dents off of seem­ingly ap­peal­ing for-profit pro­grams that only di­min­ish young peo­ple’s em­ploy­ment prospects.

State and fed­eral of­fi­cials also need to look into the de­cep­tive ad­ver­tis­ing prac­tices of­ten used by for-profit schools to lure un­sus­pect­ing, low-in­for­ma­tion young peo­ple into debt and dis­ap­point­ment. The U.S. Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion re­cently banned the use of fed­eral stu­dent aid funds to pay tu­ition and other costs at ITT Tech, one of the most pop­u­lar for-profit trade schools, caus­ing its col­lapse. But there are many other for-profit schools that con­tinue to tar­get dis­ad­van­taged youth, and they need to be shut­tered too.

More broadly, ed­u­ca­tors must take the lead in ex­plain­ing to stu­dents what is re­quired for them to be con­sid­ered col­lege- or ca­reer-ready so they can make re­al­is­tic, in­formed choices about their fu­ture. Young peo­ple must un­der­stand that while for-profit schools may prom­ise the moon, they of­ten are only in­ter­ested in ex­ploit­ing their so­cial and eco­nomic vul­ner­a­bil­ity. Trade and tech­ni­cal schools should be en­cour­aged to al­low stu­dents to ex­plore a va­ri­ety of fields be­fore com­mit­ting to a vo­ca­tion, and com­mu­nity col­leges need to of­fer more vo­ca­tional and ca­reer train­ing that helps dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents lift them­selves out of poverty. What we have now is a per­fect storm of ea­ger but un­der-pre­pared and un­der-in­formed young adults who want to launch ca­reers yet end up be­ing pe­nal­ized for their ef­forts.


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