By Olivia Snow Smith
October 29, 2019
Caption : Image credit: Andre Hunter     

This post was updated on November 6, 2019 to include additional citations for the lawsuits Berkeley College has faced, as well as source information from that demonstrates the school’s high cost to low value in comparison to a public CUNY college.

What started out as a simple image-sharing iPhone app in 2010 took only eight years to become the $100 billion empire that Instagram is today. Instagram stands out as the platform on which both celebrities like Kylie Jenner and relatively unknown people posting carefully curated depictions of their lives can make serious money from sponsored posts. These professional Instagrammers are commonly known as “influencers.” It doesn’t really matter what they’re selling in practice—weight-loss tea, essential oils, meal-kit subscriptions—what influencers promise through their marketing is a fairytale version of their own lifestyle. Worryingly, dangerous, for-profit colleges have picked up on this scheme, and are increasingly using Instagram to deceive prospective students—particularly young, single mothers—about the institution’s power to change an enrollee’s future. 

Some of the biggest offenders of this type of misleading influencer marketing are Berkeley College in New York City; National American College, which operates online and at locations at Ellsworth Air Force Base and King’s Bay Naval Submarine Base; DeVry University, headquartered in Illinois with campuses in 12 other states; and the many schools in the Art Institutes system. All of these for-profit colleges have been subject to lawsuits for a range of misconduct, and some have even been commanded by the courts to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for their transgressions.  

Berkeley College was sued in October 2018 by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs for aggressive recruiting and debt collection tactics and misleading students about financial aid. The lawsuit followed a two-year investigation by the Department. The school was sued again in November 2018 by three former admissions counselors in Estevez v. Berkeley College. In this employment discrimination case, a former counselor describes witnessing another employee providing “inaccurate information to potential students on a regular basis,” behavior that the lawsuit alleges was “encouraged” by a member of management [See item 36 in the lawsuit, which names Martinez, the COO of the White Plains office]. Although 18 Art Institutes have been shut down, the remaining mentioned institutions are still in business. Like fashion influencers sponsored to subtly advertise products under the guise of being your friend, these colleges use similar tactics to reel in specific kinds of customers—whoops, sorry—“students.”

The Instagram accounts run by for-profit colleges share several key motifs. Each has an aesthetically pleasing color scheme. Every few days, a cheesy stock image of a winding road or a man standing on a cliff is posted, adorned with a motivational quote about never quitting and sticking with one’s goals. Most impactful on the accounts are the hundreds of posts featuring beaming students in caps and gowns. The vast majority of these students are women of color. Many have babies in their arms, or children by their side. The posts suggest: “She could do it, and so can you!” What they don’t tell prospective students is that for-profit colleges have an average graduation rate of just 23 percent, compared to 59 percent at public institutions and 66 percent at private nonprofit schools. 

Source: College Scorecard

And their targeting has worked. A National Postsecondary Student Aid Study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that three in ten single mothers in college attend private, for-profit schools, a larger share than students of any other family type. The same study showed that college students who are parents of dependent children are more likely than their counterparts without children to attend for-profit institutions and that single parents are more likely than married parents to attend a for-profit school. This has been has also been documented by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). Even though for-profit colleges enroll only nine percent of post-secondary students, they account for 34 percent of all federal student loan defaults. 

In a recent Instagram post from Berkeley College, a young woman in cap and gown holds a matching teddy bear and a bouquet of roses. She leans down to kiss her daughter, dressed in a sweet pink dress and beaming up in response. Swiping on the post shows eight more pictures of mothers and their children. One woman has a baby in her arms while she accepts her diploma on stage. It is captioned, “Happy Mother’s Day! Wishing every mom a day filled with love and appreciation. Special shout out to our (muscle arm emoji) Berkeley moms who just graduated! #MothersDay.

Similarly, a recent DeVry university post depicts a woman with pink hair and her three children. The middle child holds her mother’s graduation cap decorated with glitter and butterflies. DeVry captioned the photo, “There are three little reasons why this moment is extra special for recent graduate, Mariah!”

National American University takes its targeting a step further, recently running an Instagram contest that asked for students to share their reason for attending NAU with the hashtag #MyReason.The hashtag links to dozens of entries, almost all consisting of a mother and at least one child. The winner of the contest, as determined by NAU, was a post featuring a smiling young woman and her young daughter. The institution captioned the photo, “Congratulations for being NAU’s #MyReason Instagram contest winner! Her reason for wanting to go back to school is for her two daughters.”

These images are incredibly misleading. For-profit colleges like Berkely, DeVry, and National American University are promoting the unlikely exceptions to the rule, cases that are virtual anomalies, to encourage women to pay thousands of dollars to maybe graduate with a third-rate degree. They heavily imply that by doing so, these women will earn a better life for themselves and, most importantly, their children. They ignore the fact that people who attend for-profit colleges usually end up worse off than when they started out, with no degree, huge debt loads, and ruined credit. 

More than 70 percent of students at for-profit schools take out federal loans, compared with just 17 percent at community colleges and 48 percent at public four-year institutions. Single mothers are led to believe that taking out these loans is an investment in the economic security of their families. In the end, however, they are left burned. A paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that for-profit graduates actually earn less money after attending.

For single moms who are looking for an environment that is supportive of their needs, online for-profit colleges seem like a good bet on paper. At real universities, the number-one obstacle for single mothers is child care. Child care costs, on average, around $10,000 dollars a year. To make things worse, The Trump administration wants to cut a federal-aid program that provides money for campus-based child care programs. To make themselves appear more attractive to this demographic, for-profit colleges imply that young mothers will be able to take care of their kids while working on an online degree. To sell this story, the institutions post many pictures of moms doing homework on the couch with their kids by their side, supposedly a result of their flexible schedules. In reality, single mothers attending for-profit institutions have significantly greater unmet needs than those attending two- and four-year colleges.

Just as Instagram has been proven to be the most damaging social media platform for your mental health, for-profit colleges have unequivocally been proven to leave students worse off than they were before they enrolled. The desire for higher education should be nurtured and supported, not taken advantage of with marketing gimmicks. These institutions are not only scamming their students, but are also purposefully preying on vulnerable people seeking a better life for themselves and their families in order to do so. 

This is a guest post by Olivia Snow Smith, communications intern for Americans for Financial Reform, a nonpartisan coalition of over 200 organizations fighting for a safer and fairer financial system. To receive regular emails about their work, join their email list.   

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