As a for-profit college inspector, Michael Fitzgerald called recruiters, pretending to be a potential student, to see if they were lying. His employer in the summer job was a large chain of for-profit colleges that wanted to protect itself from fraud charges, he writes in Pacific Standard.
Recruiters didn’t lie very often, Fitzgerald reports. They didn’t have to. “They were pitching a product—upward mobility via higher education — that the rest of society had already primed their customers to desire, no matter the cost.”
Raised in a low-income family, Fitzgerald turned down a scholarship to University of Vermont to attend the more prestigious Carnegie Mellon. He used a $5,000 annual Pell Grant, and federal loans — the interest rate was seven percent — to pay the $40,960 annual bill for tuition, room and board. He ran up more than $70,000 in student debt.
I wish anyone involved in my indebtedness—my family, Carnegie Mellon, the federal government, the state of Pennsylvania, or even the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (which accredits both Carnegie Mellon and many of the for-profit schools I called as a fake prospective student) had asked me what I planned to major in and what career I aspired to. Then, maybe, when I’d said “English” and “writer,” they’d have denied me a $5 loan for cab fare home, or told me they’d rather see an armed robber in their office. I would have had to seek out a solid, affordable state school.
His Carnegie Mellon degree helped him get “a salaried position in a competitive field of my choosing,” he writes. He’s paying off his loans.
Marginal students drawn to for-profit colleges typically start poor and remain poor — and in debt — after trying and failing to earn a degree, Brookings warns.
Young people are told that “college is a must-make, can’t-lose investment,” writes Fitzgerald. “For some people, it’s a shouldn’t-make, can’t-win investment.”