Nikka Ewing logs onto the Uber Eats app most mornings after she gets her 4- and 6-year-olds off to school. She has a few hours to earn some cash. But sometimes delivery orders are few and far between.

“You turn on the app, and they’re giving you $2 orders and $3 orders,” said Ewing, 34, who lives in south suburban Country Club Hills, “I’m not even making gas with that.”

This is a much different life than the one she envisioned when she enrolled at DeVry University in 2019. She had tried college once before, but dropped out after the unexpected death of a close family member. But she was determined this time to achieve her childhood dream of working in robotics.

DeVry seemed to offer a way forward, with advantages over a nonprofit private college or public university, where the majority of U.S. students go. A television commercial for the for-profit college chain promised Ewing a bachelor’s degree in three years instead of four — and job placement within six months of graduation.

Five years and $60,000 of federal student loans later, she still has not finished DeVry’s bachelor of software engineering program. She has earned enough credits for two associate’s degrees and has applied to one job after another, but has yet to get an offer.

“I’m like, ‘DeVry, something’s got to come,’” Ewing said“Because I can’t keep living like this.”

Ewing may have been better off had she stopped at a high school diploma. A WBEZ analysis of federal data and a WBEZ survey of more than 250 current and former students found that for-profit education programs in Illinois too often leave students worse off than if they hadn’t gone to college at all — struggling to pay off mountains of student debt with wages just as low as those of a high school graduate.

Most impacted are Black students and low-income students like Ewing, who enroll at for-profit colleges at much higher rates than they do at nonprofit and public colleges or universities.

“The for-profit playbook is to meet these communities where they are, capitalize on the lack of infrastructure, lack of funding, lack of opportunities, and then dangle that promise of economic security, economic stability, economic mobility, to these same folks,” said Aissa Canchola Bañez, policy director for the Student Borrower Protection Center. “And the results are catastrophic.”

WBEZ compared the median earnings of students 10 years after enrolling at each Illinois college with those of high school graduates in the state who are 25 or older. Just a third of about 90 for-profit schools in Illinois reported students’ median earnings higher than that of high school graduates. More than 80% of public and non-profit schools in Illinois each reported median earnings greater than that of a typical high school grad.

The wages are so low compared to the debt students take on that a new federal rule that goes into effect July 1 could cut off federal funding for about 60% of Illinois’ for-profit schools, a WBEZ analysis of federal data shows. That’s slightly higher than the national average of 55%. Most of the schools with the worst outcomes focus on cosmetology.

DeVry is among the better-performing for-profits in Illinois in terms of earnings and falls into the third whose typical students make more than students who topped out at a GED. But 10 years after enrolling, median earnings for DeVry students is $45,200, just about $10,000 higher than the median income of a high school graduate. Representatives of DeVry did not respond to a request for comment.

Experts and advocates say the ways in which these schools are designed to meet students where they are — with aggressive recruiting and marketing, locations in communities of color and schedules that accommodate work and childcare — point to holes in Illinois’ public and non-profit higher education ecosystem and the students it is failing to serve.

“Until policymakers at the federal and state level treat higher education in the U.S. as the public good that it is, that it should be, we’re going to see the for-profit industry capitalize on the folks who too easily fall through the cracks of traditional higher ed,” Bañez said.

Nikka Ewing
Ewing said she has applied to many jobs but has yet to be hired. In the meantime, she has been driving for Uber Eats to make ends meet. “I can’t keep living like this,” Ewing said.

Empty promises from for-profit colleges

Unlike public and nonprofit colleges, for-profit colleges answer to owners and investors whose priority is to maximize profit. And federal data shows they get nearly all of their revenue from tuition and fees. As a result, these schools are incentivized to spend a lot on getting students in the door — but far less on educating them.

“[Tuition revenue] at nonprofit institutions is being funneled into things like instruction, and helping to sort of craft and improve what’s happening in the learning environment,” said Dominique Baker, a higher education researcher at the University of Delaware. “At for-profit institutions, more of that money is just going back to trying to get more students to enroll.”

For every dollar they get in tuition revenue, nonprofit and public colleges spend an average of 79 cents and $1.13 respectively on educating students, according to research from The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C. This is because they rely on other sources, including public funding, grants and endowments. But for-profit colleges, the research showed, spend an average of 26 cents on education per tuition dollar.

That means for-profit colleges often lack support for students who are low-income and first-generation and frequently enroll at these schools, researchers said, including tutoring and regular appointments with student advisors.

Researchers said this lack of support is reflected in lower graduation rates at for-profit schools. In 2019, the graduation rate for low-income students at for-profit schools was just 25% — compared to 50% at public schools and 53% at non-profit institutions, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

In some cases, respondents to WBEZ’s survey said the colleges fail to deliver even basic instruction.

Geneva Wright chose Chamberlain University, a for-profit nursing education chain, because she could start on her bachelor’s degree there right away instead of waiting for the traditional fall or spring semester. She was solo parenting and working as a nursing assistant — and wanted to make more money as soon as possible. For-profit colleges often appeal to students like Wright by offering rolling admissions, weekend and evening classes and the option to complete credits online.

“Chamberlain was the fastest and could get me in quicker, and now I kind of see why,” Wright said.

In her last semester, Chamberlain failed to place Wright and her classmates in a clinical rotation, an integral part of nursing education. Instead, their instructor led study group sessions at a Panera Bread.

“It became very apparent they were really only interested in my money and, as long as I was paying, they didn’t care,” she said.

Chamberlain’s graduates tend to earn more than students from other for-profit colleges in Illinois. Many are nurses, which is an in-demand and high-paid profession. But they also tend to take on more debt than their peers attending the state’s public colleges.

Wright finished with roughly $50,000 in debt, but had it canceled under a federal settlement for people defrauded by their colleges. Chamberlain, DeVry and more than 100 other mostly for-profit schools were implicated.

Chamberlain officials declined to comment directly on the settlement or Wright’s experiences.

In an email, the for-profit school wrote: “At Adtalem Global Education, the parent company of Chamberlain University, our primary goal is to equip our students with the knowledge, skills and experiences they need to pass required licensure exams and enter the healthcare workforce.”

Wright has been relieved of her debt, but countless other students who have attended for-profit colleges aren’t so lucky. Of the for-profit college students surveyed by WBEZ, about 40% said they still had over $30,000 in student debt, even though many had been out of school for a decade or more.

And unlike graduates of traditional nonprofit colleges and universities, many of whom also have debt, for-profit graduates tend not to make nearly enough money to pay their debt back. For-profit students borrow more money and default on their loans at much higher rates than students from other institutions, according to the Federal Reserve of New York.

Stephanie Vega borrowed $7,000 in loans and paid $3,000 out of pocket to attend the Bridgeview campus of the for-profit cosmetology school Tricoci University of Beauty Culture. The program’s median earnings are nearly $10,000 less than that of high school graduates.

Stephanie Vega
Stephanie Vega attended the for-profit cosmetology school Tricoci University of Beauty Culture in Bridgeview but said the training was not worth the cost.

Vega had been working as a bartender but wanted a career change so she could spend evenings with her kids. She graduated this year, but has yet to find a new position after getting what she calls a lackluster education from Tricoci.

“All they did was hand you a book. They don’t care what you do, as long as you finish [filling in] that book,” she said, adding that she did not feel the school had prepared her for the state board esthetician exam. “I just don’t know how they’ve gotten this far with this many students and this much money, offering what they offer.”

Representatives from Tricoci did not respond to a request for comment.

Tricoci University of Beauty Culture
Vega borrowed $7,000 to attend the Tricoci University of Beauty Culture in Bridgeview but was unable to get a job in a related field. The school reported median earnings for its students nearly $10,000 less than that of a typical high school graduate.

Despite outcomes like these, for-profit colleges continue to enroll students, in part, by spending heavily on marketing, including commercials on YouTube, TikTok, and local television, and signs on public transportation.

The Brookings Institution, a Washington D.C. think tank, found for-profit institutions spend nearly $400 on advertising per student, compared to $48 per student among nonprofits and $14 per student among public institutions.

“[For-profit colleges are] saying that they can fundamentally change your world, that they will give you a better life,” Baker said. “More often the people in those ads have children, they [tend] to be older. And those ads have Black women more often than other institutions’ ads do. So in every sort of way, these for-profit institutions are creating an image of being incredibly welcoming to Black women in particular.”

Targeting vulnerable communities

All of that targeted advertising, researchers said, is one reason some communities of color and low-income communities are vastly overrepresented at for-profit colleges.

In 2022, 26% of students at the state’s for-profit colleges were Black, compared to just 9% of students at the state’s nonprofit colleges.

The disparity is especially stark for Black women, who comprise the majority of Black students enrolled at for-profit colleges. In 2022, Black women made up 6% to 7% of students at Illinois’ nonprofit and public colleges, but more than 20% of all students enrolled at Illinois for-profit schools, according to WBEZ’s analysis.

“They are people for whom frequently the labor market does not work,” said Baker, the higher education researcher. “They can have the same degree as their peers yet be paid less. They can be more likely to be fired from their jobs — just all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of their work.”

The schools also target these groups with their locations. An analysis by the Student Borrower Protection Center found that 41% of Chicago ZIP codes with the highest concentrations of Black residents and 53% of those with the highest concentration Latino residents are home to a for-profit college. That’s compared to 6% of the city’s communities with the highest concentrations of white residents.

Andy Bosnak witnessed tactics targeting Black women and men firsthand as an instructor at SAE Institute Chicago. He recalled an SAE poster he once saw at a South Side bus station.

“[It had] a Black guy singing into a microphone. Above, it said, ‘Follow your dream. Attend SAE Institute,’” Bosnak said. “I never saw a white rock and roll person on those ads. It was always a Latin DJ, or a Black rapper — and it was in the Black and brown neighborhoods.”

Nearly 60% of the 200-plus undergraduate students at SAE are Black and 22% are Latino, according to a WBEZ analysis of federal data.

Bosnak said he eventually left his job at the school because he felt it exploited vulnerable students without giving them the support they needed to stay in school and graduate.

Officials at SAE Institute did not respond to interview requests.

“What I was doing was signing up all these people to follow their dream,” Bosnak said. “But that [dream] ended up being: They have a bunch of debt they’re not going to be able to pay, someone in an office gets that money, and the student ends up with their same job at Walgreens.”

SAE Institute Chicago
SAE Institute Chicago is a for-profit school offering audio and video production degrees that spends just 10% of tuition revenue on teaching, according to the Student Borrower Protection Center.

This is especially harmful for students like Jennifer Lezan, who did not grow up with enough family money to cover the cost of college.

In 2022, about half of undergraduates at for-profit colleges received the Pell grant, federal financial aid designated for the country’s neediest students. Just a third of students at the state’s non-profit and public schools received it.

“They zero in on people like [me] because they know that [we’re] going to get the most in terms of federal aid,” Lezan said.

Federal student loans and grants are awarded based on family income, with students from low-income families receiving the most in federal financial aid in the form of grants and loans.

Lezan, 38, was raised in Humboldt Park and the western suburbs by her mom, who had moved from Puerto Rico and worked as a housekeeper. Lezan said she could not afford tutoring to prepare for the ACT, a standardized test that most public and non-profit colleges used to require in their admissions process. She said she did not score well and could not pay the fee to retake it.

That left community colleges and for-profit institutions as Lezan’s only options for getting a degree. Her mom did not go to college or know the difference between the two types of school. But she knew her daughter was interested in design, so when a recruiter from The Illinois Institute of Art visited Lezan’s high school, she encouraged her daughter to apply.

Lezan attended the Schaumburg campus of the for-profit chain from 2004 to 2008, a decade before it abruptly closed in 2018 after losing its accreditation.

“I didn’t understand that stuff back then. I just knew I needed to go to college,” Lezan said. “Because you’re telling me, ‘This is how I’m gonna break the cycle of poverty in my family.’”

Lezan wishes she had gone to a nonprofit or public college, because she thinks it would have provided a higher quality of education at a more affordable price. Nationally, when comparing schools that mainly grant bachelor’s degrees, students pay an average of about $5,000 more per year at for-profit schools than at public schools, a WBEZ analysis finds.

The for-profit colleges say they’re meeting students’ needs. Bañez, of the Student Borrower Protection Center, sees it differently.

“This entire sector is really kind of preying on these communities in the name of inclusion when they’re just really exacerbating some of [our country’s] worst inequities,” she said.

Lezan graduated in 2008 and struggled for years to pay off her student debt because of the exorbitant out-of-pocket cost of her for-profit college, she said.

“That school, at the end of my four-year program with my bachelor’s, cost $80,000 plus interest, which is bananas,” said Lezan, now a freelance illustrator and graphic designer.

Federal attempts at reform

Advocates say the for-profit education industry has a strong lobby that has long resisted comprehensive reform.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who most recently introduced the Proprietary Education Oversight Task Force Act, told WBEZ that efforts to curb the for-profit industry took a hit during the Trump Administration, under then-Secretary of Education and for-profit ally Betsy DeVos. “She enlisted so many people from the industry to serve as watchdogs,” Durbin said. “No surprise they found nothing wrong with for-profit institutions.”

Dick Durbin O'Hare Groundbreaking
Illinois U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin has long advocated for tighter regulation of for-profit colleges and has sent a letter to high school educators in the state each year for the past 11 years warning them about the industry. He told WBEZ efforts to curb for-profit schools took a hit during the Trump Administration.

That has left federal education officials scrambling to play catch up. This summer, they will relaunch an updated version of the gainful employment rule, an accountability requirement scrapped by the Trump administration in 2019.

Starting July 1, career-training programs will have to prove their graduates can afford their monthly loan payments and that they earn more money than adults in their state with only a high school degree. If schools fail either of those tests, students in those programs will get a warning before taking out federal loans. If schools fail the same metric two out of three years, they could lose their access to federal financial aid.

It’s too late for Ewing, the DeVry student who dreams of working in robotics. She hopes to graduate later this year and will have to start paying her loans back six months after that. She estimates she will owe more than $60,000 in federal loans for her classes at DeVry.

In the meantime, she has started cleaning houses to make ends meet. She was having car troubles and had to stop delivering food.

“They tell you,’ Oh, in order to get a better job, you need to get an education,’” Ewing said. “You get an education, and that still ain’t enough.”

WBEZ engagement editor Al Keefe and engagement producer Steven Arroyo contributed to this report.

Higher education reporter for WBEZ Chicago in partnership with Open Campus.

Amy is a data reporter for WBEZ.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on the Race, Class and Communities desk at WBEZ.