Devos fails students
Deregulation helps for-profit colleges, not enrollees, says Vivé Griffith
Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Katherine Clark just released the Devos Watch, summarizing the secretary of education’s first year in office as riddled with conflicts of interest and questionable ethics.
Massachusetts’ members of Congress aren’t the only ones keeping a close eye on Betsy Devos. Those of us who work with low-income students have witnessed with dismay as she has quietly dismantled protections that keep people from being taken advantage of by for-profit colleges.
Instead of safeguarding policies to hold schools accountable to students, we are entering a new Wild West of higher education. Snake-oil purveyors can line up at the door, as commonsense practices like requiring schools to disclose the median income data of graduates fall away. For-profit schools are the big winners. The big losers are students, who seek better futures through the promise of higher education, and taxpayers, who fund sometimes more than 90 percent of these operations posing as schools.
I’ve spent the past decade teaching the types of students targeted by for-profit colleges. The adults I’ve taught in Free Minds, a cost-free program in Austin affiliated with the Clemente Course in the Humanities, show up ready for a second chance in education. They live on low incomes, work multiple jobs and have faced barriers to the classroom that range from homelessness to raising children alone. Yet they arrive eager to learn, bolstered by the belief that a college degree is the path to a better future. For-profit colleges trade on just this belief. For Shalindi Rochester, it was the claim of a 70 percent job-placement rate that drew her to take classes at Sullivan and Cogliano, a for-profit school. When she accompanied her mother to an information session, Rochester had no intention of enrolling. But after filling out a basic form, she got a call the following week saying she was accepted and approved for financial aid to cover the full cost of classes in medical coding. She’d been working retail for years and saw this is a chance to make a change.
“When you hear the ‘medical field,’ you think job security, as opposed to the high turnover of retail,” Rochester said. “I thought this has to be more stable.”
Rochester completed her certification and discovered the only jobs the school was placing students in were cashier positions at fast-food restaurants. And when she tried to get a job on her own, her medical coding certificate was worthless. It wasn’t accepted as valid by a single employer. Yet she now owed $13,000 in loans, while continuing to earn the $9 an hour she earned before she went to school.
Sullivan and Cogliano would go on to pay $425,000 to former students after being sued by the state of Massachusetts for misleading students and misrepresenting placement rates. But Rochester wouldn’t receive any of that money, and nearly a decade later, she doles out 20 percent of her net income in loan repayment for a certificate she says has never helped her in any way.
In my work with adult students, these stories are rampant and heartbreaking. People shoulder heavy debt for schools that didn’t keep their promises. Or they can’t enroll in classes because a for-profit school is holding their transcripts over vague financial charges. Or they complete a program, then find none of their credits will transfer to a public college.
It’s damaging on the individual level, but there are bigger concerns as well. By targeting vulnerable communities and students, these schools undermine the perceived value of higher education among those whose lives can truly be transformed by earning a degree. If they can’t trust one college, how do they know they can trust another?
Mary White Roebuck, a mother of three in Dorchester, Mass., saw her son, an excellent student who had always dreamed of being an automotive engineer, quit school at for-profit Universal Technical Institute after two semesters. Scholarship recruiters had come to his high school promising a full ride at UTI, but the funds quickly evaporated after enrollment. Roebuck is left with a $5,000 bill and a belief her son was set up to fail.
“It’s terrible when you see your child so excited about being educated and preparing himself for the future, then you watch an institution break your child down,” Roebuck said. “I’ve heard a lot of these stories in my community.”
Her son is now being trained on-site at a local BMW dealership and has set aside dreams of college.
To be sure, some for-profit schools fill an important gap for individuals who want job-based training unavailable at local community colleges. But too many take advantage of students while offering abysmal graduation rates or certificates that are meaningless in the job market. And any industry that operates almost entirely on federal dollars must be subject to scrutiny.
“I believe in accountability,” Devos told the Senate during her confirmation hearing. But with the for-profit college industry, the opposite has proved true. Weakening regulations can be spun as curbing “overreach.” But those of us who work with students know it really just holds the door open for more bad actors to exploit vulnerable students and the taxpayers left footing the bill.
Secretary of Education Betsy Devos has dismantled protections to keep students from being defrauded at for-profit colleges, whose operations rely in large part on federal dollars.