November 11, 2019

Lower Ed: Replicating Inequality

author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

What do you get when you combine the increase in low-wage work, the increase in people earning college degrees, and the decrease in state funding for higher education?

You get something sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom calls Lower Ed, which she examines in her book of the same name. Lower Ed refers to for-profit colleges and universities, which are on average twice as expensive as public four-year colleges and four times as expensive as community colleges. As public colleges and universities have lost a good deal of their state support, for-profit colleges have stepped into the void, offering easy year-round enrollment and assisting with financial aid applications.

Cottom worked for two different for-profit colleges, which she writes about in her book. She details the lengths that enrollment counselors—really a sales force, in her estimation—go to get students to sign up.

From repeated phone calls using high-pressure sales tactics, to even driving students to get a copy of a birth certificate for financial aid in one instance, the enrollment process is far easier than the often labyrinthine process of applying to a four-year or community college, especially for a first-generation student several years out of high school. The ads, billboards, and cold calls from enrollment counselors mean that these schools and their promises are familiar to potential students, whom Cottom describes as often from low-income backgrounds.

According to an analysis by the Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment, students who attend for-profit colleges are more likely than their non-profit student counterparts to be:

  • 24 or older (40 percent)
  • African American (21 percent)
  • Female (63 percent)
  • Single parents (27 percent)
  • Less likely to have graduated from high school (76 percent graduated vs. 96 percent from nonprofit four-year colleges)
  • Less likely to complete their degree (35 percent vs. 65 percent public and 76 percent of students from private four year non-profit colleges)
  • More than $20,000 in debt (55 percent for associate degrees, 78 percent for bachelor’s degrees)
  • More likely to default on student loans within 12 years (47 percent vs. 12 and 13 percent for public and private non-profit colleges, respectively)

In her interviews with executives at for-profit colleges, respondents were quick to point out to Cottom that for-profit colleges have stepped in to work with underserved populations where traditional non-profits have fallen short. There is some truth to that. However, Cottom points out that these institutions tend to put more resources into marketing and sales rather than instruction---largely because their primary motivation is to make a profit and please shareholders.

It’s tempting to think that students who take out loans to enroll in these schools should know better, or at least realize that they will eventually need to pay back the money they have borrowed. But Cottom explains how enrollment counselors invoke the “gospel of education,” a mainstream set of beliefs extolling the virtues of committing one’s self to earning a degree, no matter the cost. In a labor market where online job applications rely on algorithms sort out degree holders from non-degree holders, seeking a college degree is also a rational choice.

While the number of students enrolled in for-profit colleges has declined (as has the number of for-profit colleges), the problems Cottom points out remain. In a labor market where a college degree is regularly required for higher-status positions, funding public colleges and universities needs to be a budget priority. As Colby King and colleagues recently blogged, these costs have increasingly been shifted to students, which affects those at the lower end of the income spectrum the hardest.

Cottom notes that students from for-profit colleges often face a conundrum when they are seriously in debt—in some cases even maxing out the amount of loans they can take on— before completing the degree. She explains that traditional colleges typically do not allow units completed from for-profit colleges to transfer, thus leaving students stuck. In some cases she suggests that articulation agreements (which allow credits to transfer) might be in order, particularly to allow students to finish their work at lower cost community colleges. Of course that presumes that for-profit courses are the equivalent to other classes, which may or not always be the case.

Lower Ed provides a fascinating sociological analysis of multiple levels of the for-profit college experience. She interviewed both staff and students for her research, while incorporating macro-level statistical data to provide context. It helps us understand why these institutions exist and why students—often facing few pathways towards upward mobility—may seek them out.


great article, I was very impressed about it, wish you would have stayed next share

"More than $20,000 in debt" that's a lot of money to pay back. Lucky for me that I went to community college then transfer to a 4 year University, graduated with only 5000 student loan. Anyway, thank for sharing Karen. It was a nice read.

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