For-profit colleges take the blame for a lot of bad trends in our higher-education system. Sometimes it’s deserved. But too frequently the blame is driven by ideology and not objective analysis. And lest we assume that the blue-chip think tanks, the ones full of top-notch academics, are above this for-profit college-bashing, that is not what was on display last week at the Brookings Institution.
At an event titled “Student Loans: A Look at the Evidence,” one panelist blamed high debt burdens among black students on — you guessed it — for-profit colleges. This is not the first time we’ve seen this argument. The same claim appeared as the title of a Hechinger Institute article earlier this year. The reasoning behind the claim is that black students are more likely to attend for-profit colleges than their peers (true), and student debt is higher at for-profits than at other colleges (often true).
The problem with this argument is that it is based on reasoning alone. It tells us nothing of the magnitude of the effect of for-profit colleges on debt burdens among black students. What is needed for that task are data. And in this case the data do not show that for-profit college enrollment is a meaningful factor in explaining relatively high debt among black students.
The simplest way to see this is to compare the average debt for black college students based on whether for-profit graduates are included in the analysis. If the average debt among black students goes down when students from for-profits are excluded, then for-profit colleges are a factor contributing to black students’ relatively high debt. That is the effect we would expect to see based on the claim at the Brookings event and in the Hechinger Institute article.
The data cited in the Hechinger Institute article are publicly available through the National Center for Education Statistics, so we can conduct this simple test. The results are shown in the table below and feature three different groups of black students from the 2015–16 academic year: those who completed any type of undergraduate credential (certificate, associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree); those who completed a bachelor’s degree; and those who completed a graduate or professional degree. The figures reflect average cumulative borrowing for the entire cohort across borrowers and non-borrowers.
For all three groups, the data show that average debt does indeed decline when students at for-profits are excluded. But it is only by about $1,000 at most. That is probably a much smaller effect than one would expect having read articles or attended events blaming for-profit colleges for high student debt among black students. And it is hardly worthy of a headline.
The effect of for-profit enrollment on black student debt is unexpectedly small because many black students attend private non-profit colleges where debt levels are comparable to those of students attending for-profits. Black students also tend to borrow more than their peers no matter what type of higher-education institution they attend. Therefore, black students earning degrees at for-profit colleges can have only a small effect on the overall debt levels of black graduates. Or to put a number on it, about an overall average of $1,000.
But are the experts who say it is “a factor” still technically correct, given that for-profit enrollment results in higher overall debt levels among black students, even if it is only about $1,000? Not really, at least not by the test presented here.
The data used to make the claim are taken from a survey, so there is sampling error. It turns out that the roughly $1,000 differences in the debt levels cited above are well within the margin of error for these survey data. The differences in debt are not statistically significant.
In short, the claim that for-profit colleges are a noteworthy factor for explaining high debt among black students doesn’t stand up even to simple scrutiny. There is a pattern here.
None of this is to say that the relatively high debt burdens among black students is not a serious problem. On the contrary. The issue demands serious solutions. Blaming for-profit colleges is not one of them.