This year's presidential campaign has been full of rough reminders for Pacific Standard editor Michael Fitzgerald. In our November/December 2015 issue, Fitzgerald wrote about working as a for-profit college inspector. This involved calling schools, pretending to be an unsure, would-be student, and seeing if recruiters used illegal tactics to lure in his character. At the time, Fitzgerald was struggling to pay for his own college education at Carnegie Mellon University:
My debt grew and grew, until the summer of 2008, when credit tightened in response to the housing crash. The cash I needed to finish school would have to come from my summer job. So I showed up, Monday through Friday, in the gray-toned office of my middle-class dreams, and rated how for-profit college recruiters sold me on their school, for $12 an hour.
As Fitzgerald was preparing to write his story, headlines emerged that demonstrated the problems with for-profit colleges, as well as their sizable political power. On the one hand, presidential candidate Marco Rubio was championing a plan to "fundamentally overhaul higher education," in part by encouraging "low-cost, innovative higher education providers." Although Rubio never mentions these "providers" by name, his remarks were widely interpreted to mean for-profit colleges. (More recently, Rubio talked to USA Today about supporting online and vocational schools that meet standards for student outcomes.)
Meanwhile, in April, the Miami Herald published the results of a year-long investigation into for-profit colleges in Florida, Rubio's home state. The Herald found that for-profit colleges contribute generously to Floridan politicians, resulting in an unusually politically friendly atmosphere, and an above-average market share of college students in the state. That's troubling because many former students the newspaper talked to said their colleges misled them and offered them substandard educations. Some said the schools signed them up for loans without their consent.
"Florida students may be particularly vulnerable," wrote Herald reporter Michael Vasquez. "Florida's demographics include large numbers of immigrants, minorities, single mothers and veterans—all groups targeted by for-profit colleges."
Fitzgerald's reporting similarly found that for-profit colleges target the marginalized. He writes:
More than half of the industry’s students last year came from households earning less than $40,000 per year. As of 2013, more than 40 percent of for-profit college students were Hispanic or black. In California in 2012, more black students were enrolled in for-profit colleges than in the University of California and California State University systems combined.
Fitzgerald could only cringe when he read about Rubio's remarks in the news. "For-profit colleges, in general, seem to enroll kids that were born poor and raised poor and leave them with debt but no degree," Fitzgerald says. "So, poorer."
Since We Last Spoke examines the latest policy and research updates to past Pacific Standard news coverage.