In recent 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 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 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.