Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition launches campaign warning about risks of for-profit colleges

Nakia Trezevant spent a year studying information technology at ITT Technical Institute in Owings Mills. She said she has nothing to show for it but $12,000 in debt.

The for-profit educational firm, which had two campuses in Maryland, shut down in September 2016 after the U.S. Department of Education prohibited it from enrolling any new students who used federal financial aid. The education department found the institute was out of compliance with accreditation standards during a period of increased scrutiny of these for-profit institutions.

Trezevant, 23, will join the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition and state officials this morning to announce a new public awareness campaign to educate students about the risk of attending for-profit schools.

“I was so misled,” Trezevant said, adding that the courses she took to earn credits toward a college degree were meaningless. “I can’t use the credit. I can’t receive the transcript. I did a year for absolutely nothing.”

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, city council president Bernard C. “Jack” Young and others plan to attend the launch of the “Know Before You Enroll” campaign today at Baltimore City Community College. The campaign mirrors one launched in New York City, which is home to nearly 400 for-profit schools.

Frosh said in a statement that he hopes increased awareness “will arm students with the facts they need to know to avoid being victimized by deceitful for-profit schools.”

The campaign builds on a highly critical report released by the consumer rights coalition last year. It found that for-profit schools disproportionately target low-income, minority students who can qualify for the highest amounts of federal financial aid. Students often pay at least twice as much to attend for-profit schools than public colleges, the report found, and will likely accrue much more debt.

There were nearly 30,000 students enrolled in for-profit or career schools in Maryland in 2012, according to the consumer rights coalition report. More than 60 percent of students who attend a for-profit school nationally take out federal loans, compared to 29 percent at public institutions. The average median debt for a student at a for-profit college in Maryland was just over $18,000, versus $5,610 for comparable public institutions.

And while short-term certificate and degree programs at for-profit schools have relatively high completion rates, only 33 percent of students pursuing a bachelor’s degree at a for-profit school will go on to complete the program, the report found.

“Students who are attending these high-cost, low-return for-profit schools often have little to show for it except tremendous debt,” Marceline White, Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition’s executive director, said in a statement.

Steve Gunderson, president and CEO of Career Education Colleges and Universities, which represents for-profit schools, defended them in a statement.

He said these institutions’ “programs are academically accelerated and move students from the school to their new career in as quick a time as possible.”

Gunderston’s organization also recently launched an awareness campaign, this one focused on creating five million career professionals in the next 10 years.

“We need to focus on increasing the number of graduates with credentials that lead to a career, regardless of the tax-status of a school, so that we can meet the demand of an ever-changing workforce,” he said.

The Know Before You Enroll campaign provides students a list of warning signs to look out for and a checklist of questions students should ask before enrolling. It urges students to avoid schools that guarantee employment and warns that “if a program sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Officials also say students should be skeptical of schools that urge them to sign up on the same day they visit the schools.

“There are some for-profit institutions that are good, but students need to know what kinds of questions to ask and how to compare them to other programs. Before you take on that debt load you want to make sure you’re making the best choice for your future,” White said. “If you feel anyone pressuring you, that’s a red flag.”

The campaign is rolling out a website, www.Knowb4YouEnroll.com, that will provide information and advice to potential students. It features video testimonials from students who attended for-profit schools in Maryland recounting their experiences and what they wish they had known before enrolling. The Maryland General Assembly passed legislation last year increasing oversight over the state’s for-profit colleges. White said her organization will continue to push for more transparency.

White said students at for-profit institutions are traditionally adult learners who decide they want to go back to school. In Baltimore, researchers found, many people are enrolling in these institutions straight out of high school. The awareness campaign will target high school counselors with information about for-profit schools, and place advertisements in city buses that high schoolers frequent.

“People have to recognize that a lot of kids going to these for-profit schools are the kids doing everything right. They’re looking at education as a gateway,” she said. “We just want to make sure that they have ability to make choices that lead them to good opportunities and don’t just saddle them with debt.”

trichman@baltsun.com

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