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Why do students choose for-profit colleges?

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s new book, Lower Ed, offers the most thoughtful and grounded answer I’ve seen. And I eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff.

The short version of this review: drop what you’re doing and read this book. Read it slowly, and with a pen.  Then reread it. It’s extraordinary, in the very best sense of the word. It’s thoughtful, grounded, wise, scholarly, and even funny.  It’s short, but allow plenty of time to read it; all that underlining will slow you down.

Now to the longer version.

McMillan Cottom situates her analysis of the appeal to students of for-profit higher education in a larger vision of political economy. In trying to answer the question of why so many students poured into for-profit colleges from about the mid-1990’s to 2010-ish, she argues for a different answer than the ones usually given. The usual answers are twofold. Either the for-profit colleges are simply slick thieves who preyed upon the unwitting, or the labor market suddenly required skills that nobody else could offer at scale. She suggests a third, which she calls credentialism. In her telling, students are not witless dupes, and technological change was not unique to the mid-90’s. Instead, for-profit colleges formed a sort of “negative social insurance” program by which students hoped to protect themselves against being left behind in a labor market that had outsourced training costs to workers themselves.

McMillan Cottom worked as a recruiter for two for-profit colleges before going to graduate school in sociology, and some of the more vivid parts of the book draw on her own time in those roles. (I worked as both faculty and, eventually, administration at a campus of DeVry from 1997 to 2003. Based on that, I can attest that much of what she describes rings true.) Working closely with students there, and later interviewing them for her research, she found that they weren’t the clueless rubes that the “predatory” narrative suggests. In fact, the area of most rapid growth in for-profit higher ed in the 2000’s was graduate degrees, drawing almost entirely on students who had attained bachelor’s degrees in traditional settings. If those students are witless, we have a much larger problem.

But they’re not. Instead, they’re up against an increasingly unforgiving political economy in which all manner of risk has been shifted onto employees (and prospective employees).  The mid-century model had colleges providing broad education, and companies providing specific training. That made some level of sense when both employers and employees expected workers to stick with a single company for decades, if not for an entire career. Now, companies hire and shed workers much more quickly, and entrepreneurialism -- or what she calls “the hustle” -- has become a de facto requirement for survival. The costs of training have been displaced onto the worker, or the prospective worker.

For-profits embody “the hustle,” and adapt well to it. McMillan Cottom applied as a student to several for-profits in the course of her research to see how they’d treat her, and contrasted their methods to the multi-step process her alma mater used. As she put it, “the enrollment process I experienced at for-profit institutions never once assumed that I had been cultivated to navigate a complex bureaucracy.” (126) Compared to the low-touch, DIY approach that most community colleges use for admissions, for-profits offer a sort of concierge service that walks the student through the paperwork and assumes that the student has neither the time nor the taste for hoop-jumping.  

To which I say yes, yes, yes. When I moved from DeVry to the community college world, one of the first things I noticed was the disparity in the size and campus power of the Admissions staff.  At its peak, DeVry-North Brunswick had about 4,000 students.  (It’s far lower now.)  At that point, the Admissions staff numbered in double digits. When I moved to CCM, which had double the enrollment, the entire college had four admissions reps. Brookdale has about 13,000 students, but its recruitment staff is smaller than DeVry’s was. Even more tellingly, at DeVry, the local Admissions office didn’t report to the campus president. It reported to Home Office. As far as Home Office was concerned, Admissions was a profit center, Academics was a loss center, and the two areas were treated accordingly.

But she takes the observation farther. Particularly for single parents and folks on the lower tiers of employment, time is at a premium. They’re stretched thin, and public higher ed -- especially community colleges -- lacks the resources to provide the kind of flexibility that makes sense in their lives. (McMillan Cottom notes that the percentage of community colleges with onsite day care has been dropping steadily.) When automated HR systems require you to check a box indicating a degree but don’t care where it’s from, and the local for-profit offers flexibility and an easy financial aid process that nobody else does, the decision to enroll can be entirely rational.

McMillan Cottom notes, too, that the factors that make the decision rational tend to be more pronounced among people of color. Given the degree to which networks matter in hiring, the letters after a name (Ph.D., Ed.D., etc.) take on even greater importance. Some of her interviewees were bracingly frank in describing the value of the letters, even as they perceived the entire operation as a hustle being played upon them. Getting those letters offered protection against the kind of labor market brutality with which they were familiar. She connected with a network of black women in and around Atlanta who offered each other support in getting through their for-profit graduate degree program; the discussion revolved around what to do when their financial aid was maxed out, combined with invocations of what she calls the “education gospel” to just keep going.  

McMillan Cottom’s sensitivity to the things that are assumed but never said is striking.  She notes, for instance, that the “education gospel” that elite institutions legitimize is what creates the opening for Lower Ed.  A student can “invest in herself” at Phoenix just as well as at the University of Arizona. She insists on viewing the students of “Lower Ed” as intelligent people making explicable choices; to the extent that’s groundbreaking, shame on the rest of us. (It also allows some of the funnier moments in the book. My favorite is her description of the options a young black man in Atlanta, a Morehouse grad trying to start his own business, faced that led him to a for-profit for graduate school: “When we spoke, Mike said he saw two options for capital: ‘get a sugar momma’ or take out a student loan. Taking out the student loan would actually be easier than getting a sugar momma, if only because there are far fewer upfront costs.”)(84) Her sense of humor, well-known to her followers on social media, makes itself felt repeatedly.  She writes “as a sociologist and as a human,” and each informs the other. (26)

To her credit, McMillan Cottom avoids the easy mistake of assuming that the abuses by for-profits could be curtailed if the institutions were just better regulated, or if someone came along with an app. They thrived because they met real needs; making the institutions go away doesn’t make those needs go away. It simply creates room for the next iterations, whether they be coding boot camps, subsidized apprenticeships, or whatever else.  If you want to prevent the abuses, address the needs that create room for them. As she put it in a passage that made me yell “YES!” out loud, “This is not a problem for a technological innovation or a market product. This requires politics.” (182)  Exactly so.  

Community colleges hover on the margins of her narrative. They function as a sort of foil; they’re the traditional low-cost, open-access alternative to Lower Ed. But they’re starved of resources, and often ignored in the prestige economy. (They also tend to top out at associate’s degrees; her major focus is from the bachelor’s on up.) From here, though, her book offers potentially useful insights on the realities of recruiting, even as it also cautions against any apolitical fix. At the end of the day, job market outcomes rely on a robust job market, which itself relies on a host of decisions about the distribution of wealth. Education matters, but it’s no substitute for an economy built to create and sustain a strong middle class.

I’ve only scratched the surface of a remarkable book. Some good books teach me things. Some very good books provoke writerly jealousy that I didn’t think of something first. Great books are so far beyond what I could have done that jealousy would be beside the point; instead, I just feel lucky to have read them at all. This is a great book. 

(Disclosure: I know the author, and consider her a friend.  That said, I stand by every word here.)