Sen. Durbin campaigns against for-profit colleges

By Alex Swanson

Sen. Dick Durbin sent out an open letter to high school principals across the state on April 29, warning them to ensure that their students have accurate information about for-profit colleges.

For-profit colleges are primarily owned by private organizations or corporations and often offer flexible scheduling and class options. For-profit colleges often serve nontraditional students and offer unique services, said Nicole Elam, vice president for ITT Educational Services, a for-profit institute with 130 campuses nationwide.

“Our students tend to be older and independent. The average enrollee is 29 years old. Many are adults juggling work, family and school,” Elam said in an email. “They’re seeking to better their lives through career changes or advancing in their current field. More than 50% are minorities; many are single parents and are the first in their generation to go to college.”

However, for-profit colleges also have critics like Durbin, who argued that many of the businesses distribute degrees that may not be recognized by employers and credits that often don’t transfer into more traditional higher education institutions. Furthermore, Durbin said for-profit colleges often misrepresent the success of their graduates in terms of employment.

“It’s simple: For-profit colleges charge too much for a poor product,” Durbin said in an email. “Students go deep into debt and either can’t finish school, or end up with a worthless diploma when they graduate.”

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Durbin’s letter mentions six for-profit companies with campuses or programs in Illinois that are facing active investigations or lawsuits by the Illinois Attorney General or federal agencies. Earlier this year, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau filed a complaint against ITT Educational Services with allegations that the company was targeting low-income students with loans they had little hope of repaying. ITT moved for a dismissal of the complaint on April 30.

George Gollin, professor of physics at the University, has published research about diploma mills and for-profit colleges. He became interested in the subject when the University was spammed in 2002 by an unaccredited organization, called the University Degree Program, with calls about how to earn a cheap medical degree.

Gollin discovered that the company was essentially selling fake medical degrees. Outraged, he began to publish research against diploma mills and for-profit universities.

He commented on why so many students are attracted to for-profit colleges above a community college or another for-profit higher education option.

“Sometimes it’s because the students have not done enough research and have not found programs at community colleges that will offer, for less money, what the for-profit schools are offering,” Gollin said.

But he also stated that sometimes there are specific programs that can be found at for-profit colleges that are often difficult to find at community colleges. Gollin clarified that this is not an issue with all for-profit colleges, or even most of them, but there are enough that are being criticized for misrepresenting their success that this must be examined.

Many students that come out of for-profit colleges have much more debt on average than students that graduate from a traditional college or university.

“For-profits are often quite expensive compared to taking similar courses at a public university,” Gollin said.

In response to inquiries about Durbin’s letter to Illinois principals, DeVry University, one of the six for-profit companies under investigation, issued the following in a statement:

“The facts, and our history, demonstrate our commitment to Illinois students and their success in higher education. We encourage the senator to visit our Chicago campus, and our Advantage Academy, so that he can learn firsthand how we serve our students.”

Gollin supports Durbin’s stance against for-profit colleges.

“This is one of the most important initiatives Senator Durbin has taken on,” Gollin said. “I’m really glad he is doing this.”

Alex can be reached at [email protected].