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A danger in the post-treatment pursuit of higher education

April 22, 2013
by Izaak L. Williams
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In treatment team meetings, during assessment of individuals’ treatment progress, for-profit colleges intermittently become part of the discussion of a client’s relapse. While the connection between relapse and attendance at a for-profit institution is not empirically grounded to suggest more than a correlational relationship, anecdotal stories appear to show that attending school at a for-profit usually doesn’t bode well for a successful treatment outcome.

This is part and parcel of for-profit colleges’ business model, which is built on targeting population segments that are most vulnerable to marketing schemes designed to churn as many as possible through the doors in order to maximize profits.1,2,3 These educational institutions are readily made accessible to the demographics in the public substance abuse treatment arena (i.e., low-income, homeless, high-school dropout, recovering addict, single mother). For-profit college recruiters are known to aim sales pitches methodically at stinging emotional sensitivities about the importance that an educational credential holds to the recovery process.3

The unspoken truth is that while a two-year associate’s degree from a community college might cost a little over $8,000, a similar degree from a for-profit college costs around $35,000 on average.4 Also, for-profit academic credits, more often than not, are non-transferable.5

For-profits often are characterized by exceptionally high dropout rates of 60 to 70%, as well as a staggering 25 % loan default rate. Students often are left without a degree and instead with crushing debt loads, along with the questionable value that a for-profit education might hold in the job market.3,5,6

Addiction treatment systems must support clients in informed decision-making about investing in education from a for-profit institution. It is paramount that addiction professionals reserve space in the treatment plan to open up discussion on the individual’s interest in attending school and achieving social mobility with a credential that translates into better life prospects. The session can be wrapped up on the note of offering to coordinate a referral to an academic guidance counselor.

Treatment systems can otherwise inadvertently do a disservice to individuals by underwriting or readily endorsing for-profit colleges without clearly articulating the importance of a client’s enrollment in a degree program that spells out a precise occupational outcome.7 Without articulating a clear occupational outcome on a treatment plan, the possibility of a client losing footing or even regressing in his/her recovery becomes ever more likely.

Anecdotal accounts illustrate this phenomenon. For example, some clients express feeling acutely overwhelmed with the amount of debt in which they find themselves early on in their school tenure. Other clients have signed up for online courses and shortly after withdrawing from their educational program of study are shocked to receive a huge bill with their name on it. 

Individuals also talk of feeling defeated after being sold on false promises made by a for-profit recruiter, experiencing after completing their degree program some tough questioning by potential employers about the program’s merits.

None of this should diminish the understanding of the importance attached to a client’s desire to return to school. Electing to go back to school may signal a self-acutalizing sense of control that a client has over his/her life. In other ways, it may symbolically represent a pivotal point that marks or at least helps facilitate transformative growth in the recovery process. And of course, performing well academically can create an affirming sense of purposeful direction in which substantive meaning is constructed, gains made in recovery are consolidated, and feelings of personal agency are engendered. But as addiction professionals working in a supportive treatment system, we should assume that individuals interested in going back to school could benefit from a cautionary tale about for-profit colleges.


Izaak L. Williams, a Moore Research Fellow, is an outpatient substance abuse counselor at Ho‘omau Ke Ola in Hawaii. His e-mail address is izaakw@hawaii.edu.




1. Golden D. Homeless high school dropouts lured by for-profit colleges. Bloomberg, April 30, 2010. Retrieved from www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-04-30/homeless-dropouts-from-high-school-lur....

2. Kirkham C. With Goldman’s foray into higher education, a predatory pursuit of students and revenues. The Huffington Post, Oct. 14, 2011. Retrieved from www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/14/goldman-sachs-for-profit-college_n_997....

3. Sessions J. Harkin calls on for-profit colleges to end deceptive recruiting practices. U.S. Senate Committee on Health Education Labor and Pensions news release, Feb. 8, 2011. Retrieved from www.help.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/?id=068bd7c1-0311-447a-97b3-6....

4. Lee S. The for-profit higher education industry, by the numbers. ProPublica, Aug. 9, 2012. Retrieved from www.propublica.org/article/the-for-profit-higher-education-industry-by-t....