Tressie Cottom started out working as an “admissions counselor” — a recruiter — for a for-profit college. She struggled to justify to herself why she manipulated poor students into enrolling in expensive programs. In the midst of the 2008 financial meltdown, the college’s corporate director told her that even if financial aid dried up, the college had arranged for high-interest, short-term loans for students who couldn’t pay tuition. She phoned one of her prospective students, telling him to check out the community college before he took out any big student loans — then she resigned.
For-profit colleges used to be mostly small, family-owned businesses teaching specific non-academic subjects such as office skills, cosmetology and the like. Those colleges still exist. But now the industry is dominated by national corporations owned by Wall Street investors. The colleges offer not only credential-type education, but degrees up to and including doctorates; about the only kind of degree you can’t get at one of these colleges is an M.D.
Cottom went back to a traditional college and became a sociologist. She doesn’t think of “Lower Ed” as an exposé. She bends over backward to be “fair” to for-profit colleges, even as she strongly criticizes their business model. But she’s trying to understand why these institutions grew so quickly and successfully, drawing in not only marginal students who had trouble making it in traditional academic institutions, but even academically savvy students who wanted to upgrade their credentials while meeting family and work obligations.
The “why” is complicated. It’s rooted in a sea change in the economy. Over the past half century, employers have taken less responsibility for retraining workers for new jobs or for promotions, even as the “education gospel,” as Cottom puts it, asserts that education is always a good investment. With fewer skilled jobs available and those jobs increasingly insecure, there’s constant pressure for people to get credentials to hold their own in the workforce and possibly get ahead. This is particularly true for groups traditionally excluded from good-paying jobs — women and people of color.
At the same time, there’s been a precipitous drop in public support for education, leading to skyrocketing tuition. Now, most financial aid comes in the form of loans rather than grants. Traditional colleges have gotten harder to get into and harder to graduate from, especially for students working or raising children while they go to school. This left a gap that for-profit colleges stepped into. As Cottom puts it, there was an opportunity to make a profit off the endemic inequality in this society.
Getting admitted to a traditional college and applying for financial aid involves navigating a bureaucratic maze of requirements and forms, a maze that’s much easier for students from more privileged backgrounds. The traditional application process works to filter out those who aren’t able to navigate the maze. In contrast, the “admissions counselors” at for-profit colleges guide their recruits through the application process — filling out the forms, taking them to get birth certificates and Social Security cards if necessary, and finding them sources of student loans if they’re maxed out on federal funds.
This is all in the service of making a profit off these students. It’s one reason that prospects who could qualify for cheaper, traditional schools opt for a profit-making institution. And, once they’re in, for-profit colleges generally offer more flexible schedules and more help in finding child care than traditional colleges. In a particularly ironic twist, they often inflate their student expense projections for financial aid purposes. This means that students can borrow money for expenses beyond what they need to live. They can use the money to support aging parents or out-of-work siblings, for example, or to start a small business.
There’s no real evidence that non-degree credentials after high school actually improve a student’s job prospects. And credits from for-profit colleges are often not transferable to traditional colleges. But getting a degree, even from a for-profit college, allows someone to “put letters after their name,” giving them access to jobs and social networks from which they would be otherwise excluded. Corporations and public agencies routinely screen out anyone without a degree for higher-level jobs. The closing of noncredentialed pathways to middle-class jobs and promotions is a major factor in why nontraditional students — those who are older, working, raising children, etc. — are flocking to these kinds of schools.
The high cost of for-profit colleges means that even those who succeed in getting a degree or a credential are saddled with thousands of dollars in debt. And the majority of students who don’t complete their programs still have to pay off debt, which can take a lifetime. But Cottom says that it’s not the fault of these colleges, so much as the fault of a social system that has turned education — which benefits all of society — into a privatized source of profits for Wall Street investors.
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