In February, Patricia Ann Bowers told ThinkProgress that she owed about $57,000 in student-loan debt. The now-54-year-old mother was a student at Everest College—one of several institutions owned by the for-profit operation, Corinthian College. During her time there, Bowers’s son committed suicide. When she asked about taking time off, she was strongly discouraged and was assured that if she failed her current classes, she could retake them for free. But that wasn’t true, and after Bowers paid to repeat coursework, the school shut down leaving her with a mountain of debt, no degree, and near her federal borrowing limit.
Bowers is only one of the more than 10,000 Corinthian students asking the government to discharge their student loans in the wake of the school’s closure. So far, they have been somewhat successful, with the Department of Education agreeing to erase the debt of about 3,000 former students in the first wave of loan forgiveness. Together, all of the school’s students owe more than $3 billion.
Bowers’s story and the implosion of Corinthian are extreme examples of how the for-profit college system can fail its customers. But they’re symptoms of a more systemic problem with the way these schools approach financing education and the promises they make about the success of their students after graduation.
A new report from the Brookings Institution shows that for-profit colleges aren’t just part of the student-loan crisis—they’re a disproportionately large segment, and one that has swelled in recent years. Between 2000 and 2014, the number of students holding education debt doubled to 42 million, their total debt outstanding quadrupling to over $1 trillion. In 2000, there was only one for-profit institution among the 25 colleges and universities where students held the most student-loan debt. In 2014, there were 13, and University of Phoenix topped the list. The amount of debt owed by those attending for-profit colleges has grown from $39 billion in 2000 to $229 billion in 2014—which is more attributable to increases in the rate of borrowing at those schools than to increases in enrollment.