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When Student Debt is Not Only Predatory, But Racist

Predatory colleges exploit the promise of higher education by targeting African Americans and people of color with lies and deceptive marketing tactics.

An ad used to run on daytime TV: a young woman of color is talking about how she “has a young child” and needs to “hold down the household.” But this didn’t stop her from getting an education. So those like her should “get up” and call this college, where “a whole team of people” is waiting to help.

On the surface, it may seem like an inspirational ad tailored to a specific demographic. But when you consider that it was aired by the notoriously harmful for-profit Corinthian Colleges, it takes on a different tone.

Corinthian Colleges aggressively marketed itself to unemployed people with racially targeted campaigns. It spent over $600,000 for just two weeks of ads on BET. Nationwide, enrollment in Corinthian-owned schools was heavily African American and Latino (53%), and female (over 70%). In Massachusetts, the student body at Everest Institute (a Corinthian school) was 85% female, and a vast majority of the students were people of color. Corinthian spent far more money convincing people to enroll than it did providing quality job training. In fact, graduates of Everest programs earned less than the typical high school graduate in Massachusetts, but were left with devastating debt.

These tactics of racist targeting are standard operating procedure of federally-funded for-profit colleges. They are successful because higher education is held out as the path to the middle class. For generations, there have been public messages reminding the African American community in particular of the promise of higher education, from W.E.B. DuBois’s “talented tenth” to the United Negro College Fund’s “a mind is a terrible thing to waste” campaign. For-profit colleges take up this messaging, claiming to provide “access” to higher education when in fact they provide access to unpayable debt for programs people are more likely to drop out of than finish. Less than one in five students who enroll in a federally-funded for-profit school will ever graduate.

The debt associated with federally-funded for-profit colleges is not only predatory, it’s racist. That is because this industry targets its harmful products in explicitly racial terms. The industry claims to be increasing access to education and compares its schools to historically black colleges. Whereas historically black colleges are authentic cornerstones of the African American community, forged at a time when higher education was legally denied to people on the basis of race, corporations like Corinthian target people on the basis of race, blatantly exploiting and profiting off of inequality. Nobody should confuse these two types of institutions.

Among the more pernicious effects of the predatory for-profit college industry is that it compounds the effects of entrenched, systemic racism that has unfairly advantaged some while unjustly disadvantaging others.  African Americans who go to college end up with a disproportionate amount of federal student loan debt, and more loan defaults.  In fact, Department of Education statistics show that close to 70% of African Americans who borrowed to attend a for-profit college had defaulted on their loans a decade later. One reason that outcomes may be so poor is that less than a quarter of the money that federally-funded for-profit colleges raise from students actually goes to their education.  The rest goes to slick marketing and advertising, executive compensation, and profits for owners and shareholders.

Unpayable debt from a useless credential closes the path to the middle class for thousands of African Americans.  This is the opposite of what the federal student loan program ought to do.

 

Click here to see our page about the racial injustice of the for-profit college industry.