Every few months, a different group of researchers attempts to draw a clearer picture of the students who attend for-profit institutions and why so many default on student loans. Their work, though, isn’t fine art. Actually, it’s more like the drawings of a sketch artist at an amusement park: there is some resemblance to reality, but mostly deliberate exaggeration to create an effect on the viewer.
Each group makes an effort to make their study vary somewhat from the one that came before, and at the same time embolden the findings of other researchers. Last week, several publications with a focus on higher education reported about a study conducted by Harvard researchers that claims for-profit college students face higher debt and more unemployment.
Before coming to those deductions, researchers seemingly supply plenty of background involving the students’ demographics. The impression researchers create is that they have meticulously looked into the background of these individuals, most of whom are women and minorities, and come up with a more accurate view of who they are and the challenges they face that prevent them from making their payments.
What seems like insightful data with percentages and drop-out rates tied to their ethnicity. And not long after that information is presented, in a follow-up paragraph the inevitable comparison comes. Students at for-profit institutions have a higher debt load and default more frequently than students attending traditional colleges or universities. Why the comparison? Because statisticians live for by-the-number associations that create the impression that there is some sort of connection between people or what have you when there isn’t.
This study was somewhat different in that it attempts to address the issue of demographics and how those differ between sectors of education. The researchers claim to "adjust for demographic differences and family income" for students enrolling at career colleges and those at traditional colleges and universities.
But can that factor truly be adjusted for? You can look at each individual student, what they borrowed, whether or not they defaulted, whether or not they were the first in the families to attend college, and so on. Those details are available for analysis. You can even use them as the basis for comparison, as the researchers did. But what you can’t "adjust" for the differences the various types of college students truly face financially, the details of they world they live in, and the challenges they overcome, daily, to make the bills.
Those of us who see students every day and live in their world don’t need a new image. We can complete the answers to these questions: What are the students like? Why do they need to take on more debt than students attending other types of institutions? Why do they default more frequently on their loans? The conclusion they come to is never any different – for-profit schools leave minority students with extraordinary debt that leads them to default – and so it’s curious why the studies are undertaken time and again.
Career college students live without a safety net. The overwhelming majority pay their own way, and when they have struggles with work or with money, those struggles are very much their own. They can’t ask their parents for help. Many of them couldn’t move back home if they wanted.
They have taken the challenge on themselves, and often when they fail, they fail.
Instead of being seen for the bravery in their undertaking, for-profit college students are portrayed in the media as gullible, incapable of deciding for themselves, and ultimately worse off with their degree in hand than they when first enrolled.
I encourage the researchers at Harvard to put the statistical data down – to instead visit a for-profit college campus. They could learn far more and create a far better representation by visiting with the students. This is not, however, the best way to conduct a study and launch the results into the media to keep the negative commentary on the for-profit industry going.
Without any research at all, I would wager I could come up with an accurate depiction of the total number of Harvard researchers who set foot into a career college campus while conducting their study. My guess would be zero. How about yours?