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Watch John Oliver make the case that for-profit colleges are a waste of time and money

Many of the students starting college this fall also have enrolled in the club of US student loan borrowers, and now shoulder part of the nation’s $1.2 trillion student debt load (that’s more than the debt from credit cards or auto loans). And, as British comedian John Oliver pointed out last night on his HBO show, students who’ve attended for-profit colleges bear an outsize portion of the onus.

These schools—like ITT Technical Institute and the University of Phoenix—enroll about 13% of the nation’s students but account for 31% of US student loans—and nearly half of all loan defaults, according to the US Department of Education.

For-profit schools can cost five to six times as much as a community college and as much as twice that of four-year state universities. Much of the money gets plowed back into marketing. According to a Frontline documentary, the for-profits spend more on advertising than on teachers, and base their student retention strategy on a predatory technique: “They used to tell us, you know, ‘Dig deep. Get to their pain. Get to what’s bothering them. So, that way, you can convince them that a college degree is going to solve all their problems,” a former recruitment counselor told Frontline.

But the education doesn’t necessarily help students advance their careers. According to ITT Tech’s school performance fact sheet (pdf) for California, out of the 61 students who enrolled in a computer drafting and design program and should have graduated in 2012, only 11 actually graduated, and just six found employment in their field of study.

Of course, there are plenty of other colleges turning out graduates who see no economic benefit from their educational investment.

So, to all the students beginning their higher education experience this fall, heed the warning issued by Oliver: “Essentially student debt is like HPV. If you go to college, you’re almost certainly going to get it. And if you do, it will follow you for the rest of your life.”

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