Credit: Bobby Sims

Education, they say, is the key to opportunity—but not all chances are created equal.

ITT Tech, a well-known network of for-profit colleges, suddenly shut down operations last week, affecting roughly 40,000 students at more than 140 campuses nationwide—including at least three in the Chicago area. The decision came after the U.S. Department of Education issued strict sanctions against the company, banning it from admitting students who depend upon federal student aid, the largest source of ITT Tech’s revenue.

Department of Education secretary John King Jr. said the move was necessary to protect both taxpayers and students. ITT Tech and other for-profit colleges have increasingly come under fire from the federal government for allegations of fraud and deceptive marketing—including misleading students about their accreditation, the nature of program offerings, and postgraduation prospects. The Securities and Exchange Commission filed suit against ITT Tech last year for defrauding investors, and attorneys general in at least four states have sued them for predatory lending practices.

In addition, the institution’s standing with the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools was also in jeopardy; the government’s latest
sanctions would’ve required ITT Tech to notify students of this development. (And ACICS itself, which credentials many for-profit colleges, could lose its accrediting power
soon if federal regulators have their way.)

Although ITT Tech only occasionally released demographic information for each of its locations, many of its campuses were mostly populated by black and Hispanic students—which follows a trend for for-profit institutions nationwide. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, black and brown students made up 52 percent of enrollment at two-year for-profit colleges, and 44 percent at four-year for-profit colleges.

With ITT’s closure, some graduating students won’t have the satisfaction of attending formal commencement celebrations. And continuing students may now face the daunting prospect of starting all over again at another school, on top of the burden of existing student loan debt.

Still, it’s time for a wider crackdown that would altogether eliminate for-profit schools, before more unsuspecting victims can be harmed by their deceptive tactics—especially the students of color who mostly see these institutions as their best option.

If being poor and without education is already expensive in America, for-profit colleges take advantage of the situation and make it even worse. ITT’s trade and vocational offerings were marketed as an opportunity for students to move into higher-paying jobs, provide a better life for themselves and their families, and attain their dream of a college degree. But institutions such as ITT Tech (I refuse to call it an actual school) care less about the economic and intellectual advancement of their students—let alone making any substantive scholarly contributions within academia—than they do about generating revenue and keeping investors smiling.

Now, for students who got cheated, there are few alternatives for moving forward. As the Washington Post notes, ITT Tech students may have the option of transferring credits to other schools, but few other institutions, including other for-profit colleges, are willing to accept those credits. (The displaced students could also apply for a closed-school discharge of their federal student loan debt, but they’d lose all their credits.)

Things could get even dicier for students who took out private loans from the institution, which were allegedly offered at high cost and were very likely to end in default. The vast majority of students don’t complete ITT Tech’s programs, as campus brochures disclose an institution-wide completion rate of roughly 36 percent. And students who had little educational attainment and bleak job prospects before enrolling (and arguably even after completion) remain stuck with few options and extreme debt they can’t repay.

But in a May press release, ITT Tech positioned itself as “contributing to the growth of the nation’s economy” by serving “non-traditional” students who are “older and balancing family obligations with underemployment.”

ITT knew exactly what it was doing.

High for-profit college enrollment on the part of students of color means they’ll disproportionately deal with the impact of predatory private loans and heavy federal student loan debt. A 2014 report from the Center for Responsible Lending found that African-American and Hispanic students at for-profit schools borrow more money than their peers attending public or private nonprofit institutions.

With unemployment rates consistently higher for black job seekers than for their white counterparts with the same level of educational attainment—regardless of how well the economy is doing—it’s much less likely they’ll be able to pay down loans, let alone make ends meet.

No educational opportunity should pose dangerous risks for people who are willing to work hard, ready to learn, and striving for a more promising future.

We’ve already learned that for-profit colleges can’t teach. Now it’s time to teach these scammers a lesson.   v