Report: Meta’s Algorithm Targets Black Users With ‘Predatory’ For-Profit College Ads

A new study found that Meta's platforms show Black users more for-profit college advertisements than public college ads. For-profit colleges have historically targeted prospective Black students. Many have been accused of using predatory recruitment and false advertising.
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Evan Castillo is a reporter on BestColleges News and wrote for the Daily Tar Heel during his time at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He's covered topics ranging from climate change to general higher education news, and he is passiona...
Published on June 13, 2024
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  • The study found that Meta's algorithm sent more for-profit college advertisements than public college ads to Black users.
  • For-profit colleges have been the target of lawsuits, accused of using false advertising and predatory recruitment methods on prospective Black students.
  • According to the study, Meta could be violating the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits race discrimination.
  • The Biden administration has forgiven millions in student debt for students who enrolled in for-profits that took advantage of students.

A new study claims that Meta's advertising algorithm racially discriminates against Black users by presenting ads for more for-profit colleges than public colleges.

According to the June 2024 study by Princeton University and University of Southern California (USC) researchers, Meta — the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and Threads — disproportionately shows Black users ads for for-profit colleges. Many of these schools have been accused of targeting Black students through false advertising and predatory recruitment.

The researchers were concerned that algorithms are trained on historical biases and discrimination in advertising.

In summary, our findings show that Meta's algorithms disproportionately deliver educational opportunities that could be harmful to individuals based on race, the study says. Our study illustrates how this harm can happen in practice, as the for-profit schools with historical predatory advertising are currently active advertisers on Meta's ad platform.

In 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigated 70 for-profit institutions for false promises about job outlook and potential earnings, according to Forbes.

In an email to BestColleges, Princeton researcher Basileal Imana explained one test the June study ran. The researchers compared ads for the for-profit school Strayer University — one of the schools subject to the federal investigation — and the public school Colorado State University (CSU). The study found that Meta's algorithm sent the Strayer ad to an audience that was 58% Black and 42% white. The CSU ad went to an audience that was 47% Black and 53% white.

But Imana said that the difference in percentages of Black and white users shown ads wasn't helpful in determining discrimination because of the racial demographic differences in Meta's users. Instead, the researchers looked at the difference in percentages of Black users who saw for-profit or public school ads.

In the Strayer and CSU example, the difference was 11 percentage points.

The difference suggests that all other things being equal, the for-profit ad is steered by Meta's algorithm to Black users, and the public ad is steered to white users, Imana told BestColleges.

Meta did not respond to BestColleges' request for comment.

The study says an ad delivery algorithm typically uses machine learning to predict how relevant an ad is to a user and how valuable a user will likely be to the advertiser. The business keeps how they work specifically secret.

The researchers ran ads from April 2023 to April 2024 that mimicked real-life advertising campaigns and general neutral advertisements from public universities and for-profit universities.

For-profit colleges and Meta itself aren't strangers to discriminatory advertising allegations.

Meta's advertising algorithm has previously come under fire for discriminatory advertising claims under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). Meta's algorithm allegedly used FHA-protected characteristics like sex and race to determine which users see housing advertisements. The Department of Justice required Meta to change its ad algorithm as part of a 2022 settlement.

That same year, several students filed a class-action lawsuit against the for-profit Walden University in Minnesota.

The students claimed the university used fraudulent advertising and tactics like hiding the program's true cost to target, deceive, and exploit Black and female [doctor of business administration] students. The lawsuit was settled for $28.5 million two years later on April 17, 2024, and is now awaiting court approval.

What Could Happen to Meta

Education is one of the top advertising categories on Meta's platforms, even surpassing political advertising, according to a study by the University of Chicago. The Princeton and USC study alleges that Meta may be violating two laws with its algorithm since statutes prohibiting discrimination in education may apply to ad platforms.

  • The Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in federally funded schools.
  • The D.C. Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, age, sex, and religion in all domains, including education.

Meta should be under legal scrutiny for the role its algorithms play in the delivery of education ads, the study says. Because we show discrimination in the outcome of ad delivery, the platform may be liable under the disparate impact doctrine of discrimination.

FindLaw describes disparate impact discrimination as a court-recognized legal theory that means even if an employer — or, in this case, a platform — didn't mean to discriminate, the policies or practices still unfairly impact protected groups.

The Biden Administration Forgives Loans for Students From Predatory For-Profit Colleges

The Biden administration has targeted many for-profit colleges accused of using deceptive recruiting tactics and advertising and/or predatory advising to encourage students to get loans.

Since President Joe Biden took office, the Department of Education (ED) has begun erasing millions in debt for students who attended for-profit colleges, including the University of Phoenix, Ashford University, and ITT Technical Institute.

ED reached a lawsuit settlement agreement with Harvard's Project on Predatory Student Lending in 2022, relieving student debt for students from 155 colleges and universities, mainly consisting of for-profit institutions.

Many graduates from for-profit colleges also aren't satisfied with their schools.

A 2023 report from Public Agenda found that a number of online for-profit graduates in its survey said their degree wasn't worth it. Of 386 online for-profit and nonprofit graduates who were surveyed, only 39% of for-profit grads said their degree or certificate was well worth it. About the same (37%) said their degree wasn't worth it.

According to a 2021 report by the Student Borrower Protection Center, for-profit schools also result in more loan issues. While only 9% of all students enrolled at for-profit colleges, these colleges are responsible for 17% of student debt and a third of student loan defaults.

Our new research shows that online for-profit programs are not delivering, said Andrew Seligsohn, president of Public Agenda, in a press release at the time.

Alumni are underwhelmed by the quality of education they received, especially compared to alumni of online programs at nonprofit public and private colleges. Students invest in their education, and they deserve a strong return on that investment.