Single Mothers are 3 Times More Likely to Enroll in For-Profit Colleges than Single Students without

single mothers college

For-profit colleges have faced increased scrutiny in the past few years. However, these institutions are popular among single mothers. A new report by the Institute of Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) reveals that single mothers flock to private, for-profit schools in large numbers. This chart compares enrollment stats by gender, parental and marital status for the latest year with available data:

Share of Students in Private, For-Profit Institutions

So, what’s going on? Why are parents in general – and single parents, especially mothers – more likely to choose for-profit schools?

The Lure of For-Profits

Flexibility is one key feature of these institutions. According to Kevin Miller, senior researcher at the American Association of University Women (AAUW), “For-profit colleges often offer flexible scheduling and that’s very appealing to people with busy schedules, like parents who work for a living.”

Traditional students are more likely to arrange their schedules around their classes. However, parents are more likely to work – which means they don’t have as many options. Julie Anderson, senior research associate at the IWPR, explains, “For-profit schools are attractive to parents and those who work because they often offer classes online, or on weekends or evenings.” In addition, Anderson tells proFmagazine that single mothers usually juggle not only work, but also childcare, making flexibility extremely important.

These institutions understand their appeal to this segment of the population. “For-profit schools specifically recruit and target single parents in advertisements,” Anderson says. And, they campaign aggressively. For example, at one point, according to a Reuters story, several for-profit schools were among the top 25 advertisers on Google.

But their success is due to more than just effective ad campaigns. According to Miller, these schools have been known to engage in high-pressure, deceptive recruiting techniques. “These tactics have reportedly included targeting the desire of parents to better support their children to pressure prospective students into enrolling in a program,” he explains.

The Problem

At this point, you might be thinking: what’s the harm in an aggressive marketing campaign? After all, parents do want a better life for their children, and a college degree can help them get there.

However, students at these schools might not always get what they bargained for, according to Holden Thorp, provost and Rita Levi-Montalcini Distinguished University Professor in the departments of chemistry and medicine at Washington University in St. Louis. “Besides being very aggressive in their sales pitch, they also promise very specific career enhancements.” For example, these schools often boast of the ability to place graduates in well-paying jobs. “Unfortunately, these promises rarely materialize because the graduation rates are abysmal and the amount of student debt owed to for-profits is enormous,” Thorp explains.

For example, while for-profit schools are a very small portion of higher education institutions, a Brookings Institution report reveals that they account for a disproportionate amount of student loans. And these students are also more likely to default on their student loans. This is the result of several factors. “For-profit schools are generally much more expensive than public schools, and many students at for-profit institutions take out large student loans,” Anderson says.

And although tuition is much higher, Miller explains that for-profits tend to make sure that students obtain the maximum eligible loan amount. “This can make the up-front costs of for-profit colleges seem low, but AAUW research has found that women in general and student parents in particular face high student debt burdens after college,” he says.

Unfortunately, students at for-profits spend the most money, and are least likely to graduate or obtain a job that would justify their considerable investment. According to Thorp, “A third of all student debt is owed to for-profits and most of that is owed by students who don’t have a degree, which is debilitating.”

If college is challenging for traditional students, imagine trying to successfully balance work, parenthood and school. “Understandably, single mothers have especially low college completion rates, so the majority of them will have incurred student loan debt, but will not earn the degree that might lead to a better, higher-paying job,” Anderson laments. “And those who do earn a degree from a for-profit school may find that the degree does not translate into job opportunities or higher wages.”

I’ve observed this problem firsthand through a friend of mine, a single mother, who obtained both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from a for-profit school. Her student loan debt surpasses the $100,000 mark, and yet, several years later, her “better job” is working for an insurance company in a position that only requires a high school diploma.

The Solution

So how on earth can we reverse the trend of single mothers (or, frankly, anyone else) attending for-profits in large numbers? The key is to change the higher education model. “Many public, not-for-profit schools were based on the model of the student who comes straight to college after high school, lives on campus, attends school full-time, and works minimally or not at all,” Anderson says. “But those traditional students are no longer the norm.”

And just as the typical student profile has changed, Miller believes that schools must also change. “Public institutions should make an effort to accommodate non-traditional students with more flexible schedules, campus child care, academic counseling, and improved access to grant-based financial aid.”

Also, Miller says that public colleges and universities could take a page out of the for-profit book and learn how to stress flexibility – while also noting that public schools are more affordable.

In addition, Anderson stresses the importance of defending regulations that serve as safeguards for students. “The gainful employment regulation requires educational programs to report the ratio of their graduates’ debt to their income,” she says. “If graduates consistently have a high debt-to-income ratio, the institution can be denied federal financial aid.”

Another safeguard is the borrower defense regulation. “Borrower defense regulation was designed for students who were defrauded or deceived by a higher education institution to receive loan forgiveness.”

By forcing for-profits to be more transparent, holding their feet to the fire, and ensuring that potential students understand the pros and cons of attending these types of institutions, hopefully we can reverse this trend.