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“Not a School for People Like Them”
March 18, 2013 - 9:38pm

Rising star of the Twitterverse Tressie McMillan Cottom has a must-read post about her observations as a sociologist and former admissions staffer at a for-profit college.  It’s about the interaction between the prestige hierarchy of higher education, economic class, and self-image.

The money quote:

When I teach my undergraduates at my elite, private school they all recognize the for-profit college ads I play to introduce the idea of higher education stratification. I ask them why they did not apply to Everest or Strayer when they were applying to college. They tell me that it’s not a school for people like them.

“Not a school for people like them.”  

When I worked at DeVry, we had conversations like these all the time.  DeVry used to blanket every cheesy daytime talk show with ads -- Ricki Lake was a favorite -- and its student body reflected that.  Whenever a big muckety-muck from Home Office came to campus to exhort us to higher success rates, we usually responded by asking that the advertising be redirected to places where likelier-to-succeed students might see them.  The usual answer was that the ads worked, and as long as they worked, there wasn’t much point in redirecting them.

This strikes me as the flip side of the “undermatching” thesis addressed yesterday.  At some level, there’s a broad -- and I would say, badly dysfunctional -- understanding that certain kinds of colleges are for certain kinds of people.  That’s not restricted to the relatively unobjectionable cases of women’s colleges or colleges with specific religious affiliations, where the identities are worn on the sleeve.  The larger issue is the unwritten identity that each college assumes.

Economic and cultural capital are major components of those unwritten identities.  Those overlap with race, but they have force of their own.  The students who know the difference between engineers and engineering techs go to Purdue or MIT; the ones who don’t, go to DeVry.  

The for-profits are acutely aware of that sort of thing, and they organize themselves accordingly.  As Cottom puts it:

Can you imagine applying to your flagship state university by walking into the admissions office with $75 in cash? It is even difficult to do at the local community college I visited recently. And community colleges are, theoretically, designed to serve demographically similar students as those served by for-profit colleges. Waltzing in with cash money is not only a bureaucratic violation but a cultural one. It signals you do not know how “real” college works.

Exactly.  And if community colleges are serious about helping the folks who don’t come in knowing that, we could learn some lessons from the for-profits.

To my reading, Cottom puts a little too much faith in the economic cycle to explain for-profits’ success, and probably too little on the regulatory climate.  And it’s reasonable to think that the for-profits should be even more nervous about MOOCs than the rest of us.  But those are quibbles.  Go and read her piece.  Give it some thought.  She’s on to something, and we’d best figure out just what it is.
 

 

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