I just read this article about predatory colleges in the US:

S. Cagle, These students were ruined by predatory colleges. Now they’re getting even.

I am not from the US and didn't ask in the comments of that site because I wouldn't want to insult anyone concerned.

I just wondered: before you enroll for any degree, would you compare what the college's officials say with reality? Like, looking on the internet to find people with a degree from that school who got jobs, asking a local employment worker, asking at a local employer if they would consider giving a job to someone with a degree from that school, etc.

How is it this article says the students were so young they could not possibly have known they were being tricked? If you are old enough to go into debt with thousands of dollars for a college education, how can you not be old enough to check for the quality of that education first?

Why would people attend predatory colleges?

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    @Dirk I think the article was the catalyst to his question but really has nothing to do with the root question, "Why do people attend predatory colleges?" Commented Mar 9, 2016 at 11:15
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    This question could also be boiled down to the much more general question - "Why do people fall for scams?", which is a question as old as the oldest fool.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Mar 9, 2016 at 14:15
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    @tjd , no they don't. Most don't even know there is a thing called latin. Or emptor. Commented Mar 9, 2016 at 15:36
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    A lot of diploma mills recruit former military members who have their tuition paid for (or heavily subsidized by) the GI Bill.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Mar 9, 2016 at 15:42
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    "programs offered by schools like Corinthian and its subsidiaries, scam students into expensive but ultimately worthless degree programs that leave them with high rates of loan default and low rates of graduate job placement".......and this differs from traditional colleges and universities how?
    – coburne
    Commented Mar 9, 2016 at 17:40

7 Answers 7


A few possibilities:

  • These people genuinely don't know any better. They think a degree is a degree. I would guess that they come from parents that did not attend college. A friend of mine started at a for-profit school because she really didn't know that there was a difference between my 4 year bachelor degree and her 12 month online degree.
  • People want to take shortcuts and these schools know that.
  • These schools spend a lot of money on commercials and marketing to try to convince people to attend. It isn't surprising that people would fall victim if you see a commercial for a school 3 times a day.
  • These schools also promote their currents/past students to help recruit their friends. I have certainly seen this on my own social media feeds.
  • I once had a manager at a large company that was working on a degree from a diploma mill because the company was imposing a new policy that all managers had to have a degree, but it didn't matter from where.

So to directly answer your questions: No, a lot of people probably don't look into the details of past student success. The type of people that would do this, aren't the ones being targeted by these schools. And even if they do, you're bound to find some successes (confirmation bias) which the school will proudly advertise.

Unfortunately, these types of schools prey on uneducated people, so while it seems like common sense to us, those people may really be getting tricked and yet the government continues to have surprisingly loose regulation.

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    +1d for all of this but especially the commercials part. I have family members with mountains of debt from for-profit 'schools' and they were 100% sold on the flashy commercials and marketing which, if you don't think too much about it, made the college look great. They also throw very expensive, lavish 'parties' for recruitment and of course that draws people in who are attracted to that kind of thing. They make a ton of money, they have that money to spend on marketing. Commented Mar 9, 2016 at 12:40
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    Very good, but realistically people do very little research on non-profit schools also - it's not like these other students are somehow already more intelligent or harder working. There are significant discrepancies between advertised (and non-profit universities do a tremendous amount of advertising!) and the actual salaries, hire rates, and later academic success that results from their programs.
    – Dave
    Commented Mar 9, 2016 at 16:10
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    In addition a lot of people just want a certificate that will get them a job, not a 4 year degree. From what I've see people who go to these colleges want to become electricians, HVAC techs, welders or medical assistants. A lot of the predatory colleges advertise that they'll train you and place you in a job (or help you get one) and people think that's a straightforward path to improve their lives, not realizing they are paying through the nose for something they can get at their local community college for 1/3 the price.
    – ventsyv
    Commented Mar 9, 2016 at 21:54
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    Also, some people can't get into a 4 year college or at least think they can't. Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 15:04
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    "These people genuinely don't know any better." Exactly. These schools actively seek students who don't know any better; that's precisely why they're called "predatory." Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 7:14

I was a professor at a major for-profit university in the US. A couple campuses, out of many had been caught in scandal for preying on students financially. The university, in my opinion, was not trying to scam people. However, when you pay people to recruit students by volume, you will get bad apples.

I taught A+ certification. The academic side was solid. The teachers wanted to teach, the curriculum was correct. The books, the labs, the premade tests, etc were all, in my opinion, extremely satisfactory. If someone wanted to learn, they most definitely could.

My classes were filled with mostly inner-city students that were simply uneducated. They could barely read or write. They could only do the most basic of math problems. I had one student told me he graduated with straight D's because his school didn't want to give him F's and hold him back for a year. I had a couple of students who were there because they committed a crime and a judge told them it is either school or jail. I had a few students who said they were there because their parents said it was go to school or leave the house.

There were a few students who definitely had potential. Mostly, it was the older ones who wanted to do better in life. They were there for the right reasons and were willing to learn.

Needless to say, it was not what I thought teaching would be.

The reality is, their public schools failed them. These students have no chance to go to a quality university. Nor would they have a chance in a local community college. They simply did not have the education needed.

So that's were the for profit schools come in. They give these students a chance to learn a trade and be successful. I do not believe they are out to fleece the students out of their money. It does happen, but there are bad apples in every business.

The for-profit schools, admit people who can't go anywhere else. However, some of those students are destined to fail. But in reality, isn't every school like that?

Now, as an employer, I went to a local for-profit school to hire some low level IT techs. We had one employee who graduated from that school and was extremely competent. However, I interviewed many students who had just graduated, or were about to, and I was extremely disappointed. Students who graduated from the school could not answer the most basic IT questions. This school failed them horribly. There is no excuse for having students graduate and not be able to do the basics.

So here is the real question: Do you deny a student a chance at an education, given their odds might be slim?

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    Very interesting perspective, thank you for sharing. Two things come to my mind. (A) I wish there were [better] state funded programs to give such people a chance at an education and (B) I don't think the real question is about denying a student a chance at an education, but rather denying a business from financially ruining a student's life with debt when the employment outcomes are far worse than graduates of non-profit schools. Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 4:50
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    @AustinHenley the public schools are the issue. That is the state funded program. As for ruining a students financial future, regular colleges/universities do that as well. I think for-profit schools' are really out for the student's benefit, but they are a business and have to make money.
    – Keltari
    Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 4:58
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    – Nobody
    Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 5:10
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    @Davidmh problems exist at every school. Major public universities have scandals as well. I believe people simply have a larger reaction to headlines that say people are taking advantage of poor students. No one writes exposes on rich students getting degrees in philosophy and then cant find jobs.
    – Keltari
    Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 16:25
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    @ventsyv no. Some of the students got their certifications and started a career in IT. Some did not. At the time I was there if a student wasn't showing up to classes or did not perform adequately within 90 days they got their money back. Simple as that.
    – Keltari
    Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 21:16

Here are a couple of reasons that nobody seems to have mentioned yet.

One common reason why people attend these schools is that there simply isn't enough space in programs at non-predatory schools. For example, here in California if you want to become a nurse your best path is often to start at a community college taking classes such as chemistry and anatomy and physiology. But those classes are usually full, and many students simply can't get into them. They find themselves on waiting lists semester after semester. Here is an article describing one such student's experience.

And before we compare predatory schools too unfavorably with community colleges, we should take into account the fact that community colleges are astoundingly bad at producing educated students. Community college success rates are amazingly low, and in many ways these schools are incredibly inefficient. Since they have open admissions, they waste many precious seats in oversubscribed programs like nursing by giving them to students who don't have the necessary educational foundation or willingness to work hard.

Another thing to realize is that predatory schools basically exist because government policies are designed to subsidize the cost of education and make it easier for students to borrow money to get an education. These schools are experts in feeding at the public trough, and they do a very good job of hooking up their students with loans and aid. For students who don't have much money, these schools are often the only choice besides a community college that seems financially feasible.

In this respect, predatory schools are very similar to high-quality private universities. One of the big driving factors in educational inflation is the fact that social policy is designed to funnel money into the system. If government provides a 50% subsidy for a product, a natural response by the seller is to double the price and sell the same number of units.

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    "Community college success rates are amazingly low, and in many ways these schools are incredibly inefficient" They also vary widely because they are locally funded. Please do not over-generalize. Also, in many cases community colleges cannot help failing when they have an open enrollment mandate and declining funding. Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 8:44
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    @Dunk utter nonsense. Government subsidies for education have been falling for several decades in the United States, and many other developed nations too (UK, Italy jump to mind). Also, your theory does not explain the low price of subsidized corn in the united states. I think your reasoning would only apply to monopolies. Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 8:48
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    @Dunk: Umm, "any time"? This is not true for academia in many/most countries, not true for health care in most countries etc. Of course, to be fair, those are cases with significant government regulation/oversight and legal price/fee caps.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 0:45
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    @Dunk, you need to adjust for inflation. Once again, education subsidies were higher in the 60s and 70s in most US states. Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 22:35
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    @Dunk, I doubt you remember prices before 1929. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agricultural_Marketing_Act_of_1929 Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 22:40

Another reason people attend a predatory school is that they may benefit from it.

I know plenty of people who work at large companies, government, etc., where there is a flat "Master's Degree = 20% raise" rule, or something of the sort. In these cases, while the student may realize that they are not getting a proper education, and they are paying more than they should for what they are receiving, it is still worth it to them financially. They work full time, so getting a proper degree may take too much time. And while they are over paying for the "education" they get, they still end up making more than if they did not attend the school.

This doesn't account for all the students, especially not the ones who find themselves in great debt, but it does account for some of the schools' students.

  • At a former organization, I was paid slightly less than a peer for the same work simply because I had a Masters degree and my peer had a PhD. If the differential had been large enough, it could have paid for a diploma mill PhD.
    – emory
    Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 12:04
  • +1 Cliff AB . If an organisation has a relatively rigid pay Vs Quals scale then extra "study " would be worth it for some employees especially if its easy .In NZ the blabour market is more deregulated so there is not such a direct relationship between pay and degrees.
    – Autistic
    Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 20:59

I remember speaking with my stepfather about social reform, and how my vision for helping people in less fortunate nations involved creating things in first world nations, which would hopefully inspire people in the less fortunate nations. He pointed something out to me: the people in those nations are too focused on their severe problems, like finding out how they are going to get food, and that focus can prevent their ability to focus on things like social reform.

Similarly, unwealthy Americans may notice the riches of others in their society. When a college offers them an "opportunity" that they didn't think they had before, it may seem quite attractive.

They know full well that this college-I've-never-heard-of is less famous than the Ivy League schools (Harvard/Yale/UCLA/MIT). Yet, they don't expect to meet the admissions requirements of those famous schools. When a recruiter says that a local college will accept them, and they can get paid money from the government, that may defy their previous expectations.

Later they may find that the government money is in the forms of loans, not grants. Still, they hear this argument that sounds logical: after you graduate, you'll make more money, which will allow you to pay off the loan.

The most compelling reason to move forward with the enrollment may be this: not enrolling means continuing their life the way it was. And, that didn't seem nearly as spectacular. So, getting guaranteed money immediately, with some hope of having a good situation in the future, and some risk of troubles down the road, may seem more attractive than immediately being guaranteed to live the same troublesome life that a person has been experiencing.

Details, like the college's reputation for an education quality which is less than stellar, are a discomforting thought. However, such concerns may not be significant enough to counter the immediate benefits of going along with the program by the recruiter. After all, the organization does seem to be successful enough to pay its bills, and there is some sort of tie-in with the federal government that is helping to sponsor all this stuff, so there's enough faith in the overall system to begin having a better life right now. If things don't work out, the plan is to simply live life and tackle challenges down the road when (or, actually, if) they come to fruition.

  • I suspect many people who enroll in predatory colleges don't know the college's reputation.
    – Kimball
    Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 13:58
  • Wait, I probably should have seen this earlier but have not: Your government REALLY gives you a loan, knowing full well you are going to spend it on a predatory college whose degree is not worth ANYTHING? And you cannot sue your government for that?
    – Valjean
    Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 17:40

There are lots of rubbish colleges in my country that offer "degrees". There is even a place called MIT which is the Manakau Institute of Technology, not to be confused with the top league place in the USA.

The pass rates are high in the rubbish colleges. In the US they would be probably called "diploma mills". The property developer "BOB JONES" wrote a book about it called "Degrees For Everyone". This book was intended as a bit of a joke, but in the future it will become a cornerstone for academic reform.

The real success rate of a college is the employment outcome ratio. The employment outcomes are terrible at the easy colleges and very good at the good colleges. In my country the labour market is relatively deregulated so if someone with a degree can't get a job in his or her field the pay is a disaster. In other words if you end up with a macjob in the service industry you may never pay off the loan and never own a house. People must think very carefully about whether it is worth it to take out a student loan. Unfortunately most young people don't think that way.

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    This is a potentially useful comment, but I don't see how it answers the question. Commented Mar 9, 2016 at 11:25
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    Degrees For Everyone. Heh. If I say, "people with money are better off than people without it, so let's give everyone a million dollars to eliminate poverty," anyone with half a brain can instantly say "no, that won't work, because inflation." But if I say "people with a college education are better off than people without it, so let's give everyone a degree to eliminate poverty," a lot less people catch on. Commented Mar 9, 2016 at 16:20
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    I think this answer is factually inaccurate - predatory colleges in the United States are often not "diploma mills". Because of predatory colleges' inability to fulfill promises of job placement, it's in their interest to get students to pay tuition but not complete their degree. One technique used to achieve this is schemes using government-backed financial aid to fund the student for most of their time at the predatory school, then leave them stuck without funding near the end.
    – recognizer
    Commented Mar 9, 2016 at 16:33
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    @MasonWheeler That is because increasing the education of every single person is demonstrably a good thing. Would giving out a bachelors to everyone diminish its meaning? Yes. Would you still be able to use your more advanced skills? Also yes. It wouldn't eliminate poverty per se, but would leave everyone better off.
    – kleineg
    Commented Mar 9, 2016 at 19:21
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    @kleineg Yeah, that sounds great in theory, right up until you run into real-world places with a significantly higher than average concentration of degrees, like Washington DC, which has seen actual instances of jobs such as "pizza delivery guy for Domino's. Required qualifications: Master's degree or higher." How much better off is the guy with a 4-year degree, once eduflation has taken its toll? Commented Mar 9, 2016 at 19:25

These schools play into human psychology in two huge ways. One is the Lake Wobegon effect. Many people I know who went to "specialty schools" did so because "it's the easy way and in the end it doesn't matter because I not the stupid one. I am the smart and driven one who will go there and end up with a job / transfer anyways." Sure, some go there, learn some stuff, and then do just fine. The problem is that most people think they are better than the average person, and so "failure" statistics "don't apply to them," so they ignore the warning signs.

Secondly they do a lot of psychological pricing. Just like at 4-year colleges, most people aren't paying the full price. However, when they get a piece of paper saying "We gave you a scholarship! It's only $5,000 a year for you!" you think you're getting a great deal and why would you not go there? It's the same way that stores get people to buy things they don't need by telling them it's a good deal.

In the end, the people going to these schools think they're getting a great deal and any warning signs don't pertain to them. That makes it sounds like a good choice!

[Note: Many people I know were suckered into going to Community Colleges the same way. They went into it thinking it was a good deal and the dropout rates didn't apply to them. Sure, some did fine. The vast majority never graduated because they either couldn't get into the right classes or because nobody around them (even the teachers) cared. I think the moral is to be careful of any shortcuts.]

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