For-profit training colleges have their place in the world of higher education, typically appealing to nontraditional students who are older, perhaps juggling work and family, and looking for a leg up. Some schools provide a solid education and a fast track to a good job. But a recent Miami Herald investigation uncovered a pattern of fraud, high-pressure enrollment tactics and questionable education standards in an industry more focused on profits than producing high-quality graduates. Federal and state governments should give this industry, which has the power to help and hurt so many, much greater scrutiny.
In "Higher-Ed Hustle," the Miami Herald's Michael Vasquez exposed disturbing practices in the career training industry, which is dominated by for-profit colleges that promise to quickly connect students with solid jobs. The Herald found some of the colleges had enrollment and retention quotas, falsified documents to secure federal money even after students dropped out, and failed to disclose details that would later impact graduates' ability to get a job, such as that hospitals and doctors don't typically hire workers with criminal records. That didn't matter at Fort Lauderdale's campus of ATI Career Training Centers, for example, where recruiters routinely enrolled people without clean records.
A great number of career training schools or degree programs are accredited by national groups held in low esteem by other academics and potential employers, many of whom have blacklisted the graduates of some schools. Students in for-profit colleges without accreditation from respected organizations also find it nearly impossible to transfer their credits to more traditional colleges.
But reforms have been hard to come by and even harder to make stick. In 2010, the Obama administration launched a worthy effort to better regulate for-profit colleges. Under its gainful employment proposal, the administration would stop federal funding to for-profit programs where students struggled to pay back student loans. To get around the new regulations, several for-profits — including Fort Lauderdale-based Keiser University, which has a campus in Tampa — switched to nonprofit status. That move makes them eligible to receive 100 percent of revenue from federal financial aid and allows them to sidestep property and sales taxes, the Herald reported.
Although the Obama plan takes effect in July, the new rules were watered down by aggressive lobbyists in Washington. In Florida, many of the same interests have donated $1.2 million to politicians since 2008. Florida has failed to adequately police the schools and made it easier for them to operate outside of regulations. In 2013, for example, the Legislature passed a change that allows schools to offer unaccredited physical therapy assistant programs. Among states, Florida has this dubious distinction all to itself.
Students get the worst end of the deal at private career training schools. They fall victim to high-pressure marketing campaigns, rack up huge amounts of student loans for the expensive programs and receive substandard instruction. And when colleges shutter — as the government ordered Everest University's parent Corinthian Colleges to do — students are often left with big bills and little hope of finishing their schooling.
Greed and lax oversight have spawned corruption among for-profit colleges. Federal and state leaders should step up efforts to monitor this industry, which takes advantage of students who can least afford it and does a disservice to customers by putting unskilled workers in the marketplace. Until then, students should take responsibility for their own educations. Students should check schools' accreditation, gradation rates and, if applicable, the percentage of students who pass licensure exams. Until lawmakers demand greater accountability from these private operations and enact stronger reforms, students are left to do the research themselves to separate legitimate colleges from diploma mills.