The exact opposite of what higher education is supposed to do

Terry Gross did an interview about for-profit colleges a couple of weeks ago that I kept meaning to blog if only Trump would shut up for one second. Her guest was Tressie McMillan Cottom, who has written a book about them called Lower Ed.

She worked as an enrollment officer for two for-profits at opposite ends of the spectrum – a cosmetology career school and a large college that offered associate’s, bachelor’s and graduate degrees. She left after fearing that instead of helping the students she recruited to improve their financial future, she was leaving them with large student loan debt they’d never earn enough to repay.

When she left the for-profit college sector, she returned to college, completed her B.A. and went on to earn her Ph.D. from Emory University. Her dissertation was a study of for-profit colleges. Cottom is now an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

When she worked for them she didn’t realize right away how exploitative they are.

While for-profit colleges have existed for a long time, we have not always had corporate for-profit colleges. Now for-profit colleges, starting around the mid-1990s, are no longer owned by, like, mom and pop local chains. Increasingly, they were owned by shareholder corporations, so they had become a financial vehicle. Because they are a financial vehicle, the way they operate and their relationship to profit and education had shifted.

It’s no longer a matter of “make a basic profit by providing a good service” but one of “make an ever-increasing profit because that’s what shareholders demand.”

They’re thriving in the current economy because jobs keep demanding new skills and credentials.

GROSS: So you’re suggesting that in the world we live in now, in a lot of professions, you have to keep going back and get further training or further accreditation and that it’s often the for-profit colleges that provide that.

MCMILLAN COTTOM: That’s right. For-profit colleges, in many ways, are providing the job training that employers once did but no longer do.

GROSS: So you’re suggesting now that you used to be able to get that on the job, but now you have to pay for it.


Which is probably not so bad if the job pays well enough, but if it doesn’t…it is so bad. The for-profit ones tend to be expensive.

GROSS: So this creates a situation where it’s typically people who don’t have a large income, often people who are people of color, single-working parents who end up in these schools, but they cost a lot of money. So you have people, you know, without a lot of income paying really large fees for tuition. So what kind of situation does that create?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: The situation that that creates is that because of how we finance higher education in this country because we rely so much on student loans – that are what we call means-tested, meaning you can qualify for more money the less money you have. Well, we designed it that way so that those with the least amount of resources could increase their educational choices and options because they could borrow more.

Well, the problem in the for-profit college sector is that means that the poor students can borrow the most. Well, that creates an incentive for for-profit colleges to recruit students who will qualify for the maximum amount of student aid. Well, those happen to be the poorest among us, and because of how our society is set up, the poorest among us tend to be women and people of color. So the indirect effect of this is that women, especially women of color, are the most vulnerable to the incentives that have been set in place for revenue and profit-taking among for-profit colleges.

Tragic, isn’t it. Poverty=you can borrow a lot to get training / a credential – but borrowing a lot costs a lot, and costing a lot is especially hard on poor people. Not surprisingly, a lot of people drop out and are stuck with this terrible debt.

GROSS: So these college are supposed to be the education that offers people a path to a better job, a better life, a higher status.


GROSS: But if you end up having to default on a loan or if you end up being, you know, in debt because of a loan, what happens?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Your options for education are pretty much foreclosed upon. Debt has made our choice of higher education options far riskier than they were 20 or 30 years ago. And in the for-profit college sector, that’s especially acute because those students are more likely to be poor or low income or sort of dancing along the line of poverty, as I say it. Right? Even if they’re not poor at the moment, they have a lot of risk factors for dropping below the poverty line.

Because of that, for-profit colleges really aren’t set up to transform these students’ lives in the way that we think higher education is supposed to do. And so for me, the consequence of that is this system that we’ve come to rely on to increase access to higher education to the most vulnerable among us really only compounds their poverty and their risk factors. Well, that’s the exact opposite of what higher education is supposed to do.

And DeVos is undoing the regulations that were an attempt to mitigate that awful situation.

In a further irony, the for-profit system depends on the Federal Student Aid program.

GROSS: Do most of the student loans that are taken out for for-profit colleges come from the government? Are they government loans?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes, 97 percent of the students who attend a for-profit college rely on the student financial aid system.

GROSS: So does that mean that the for-profit colleges are very reliant on government loans?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Almost entirely reliant on the student aid system. We don’t have a for-profit college sector were it not for the Federal Student Aid system and the fact that they have access to it. Almost all of their profits – so whenever you hear one of these staggering statistics about how much profit some place like the University of Phoenix has made in any given year, just assume that the majority of that has come from Federal Student Aid dollars, and you will almost always be right.

Tax dollars to enrich shareholders in for profit colleges while trapping poor people in debt. Awesome.

Was Trump “University” one of these scams?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: No, no, no. In many ways, Trump University is even more cynical (laughter) than the for-profit colleges that I talk about and write about. And this is what I mean by that. Trump University didn’t even pretend to set up an actual school. What Trump University really did was it traded on the public’s faith in the word university and used the word university as part of its brand.

But there was no campus, for example. They never pursued any license to actually operate as a school. One of the best ways, actually, to think about Trump University is that it was a lot like a timeshare sales organization than it was an actual school. But what I think that Trump University does tell us about this administration is sort of how cynical they are about higher education. It tells us something, I think, about their position on public higher education. I think that they have signaled pretty strongly that they are not interested in defending public higher education as important to democracy and the public good. And I think this president’s experience with sort of using the word university, trading so cynically on the public’s faith in the word university – kind of gives us an indication of how he views higher education.

Along with his utter contempt for the very concept of knowledge, which is particularly evident in his way of regularly saying he knows more about X than anyone else, when he very obviously knows nothing at all about X.

There’s a very sad (and enlightening) bit about why the for-profit colleges mostly can’t do what they claim to do.

MCMILLAN COTTOM: It’s different because what we rely on for that to work. So if we just think about when we apply for a job for those of us who’ve attended college, how rare it is when we apply to – for a job for them to actually sit us down to demonstrate that we know the skills that we say we know. What we rely on instead usually in that process is for someone on the other side, usually the hiring manager, to look and say, oh, this person has a good degree from a good school. And we trusted that means this person is generally knowledgeable and can be trained in the specifics of this job.

Well, all of those assumptions, those good faith assumptions about our degree have not been proven to be true of the degrees that students were earning from a place like the technical college. The question was is the labor market, are hiring managers looking at the Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the for-profit technical college with the same good faith that they are extending to traditional degrees? And what we have found – the numbers don’t bear out that they are.

Well, if that’s the case, then the students who are assuming that they are getting a degree that will operate just like any other degree really aren’t, and the schools because they are not – they don’t have any incentive to tell the students differently – are not encouraging the students to know about that difference when they choose to enroll in a place like the technical college.

It’s a bit crushing. The hiring manager is never going to “look and say, oh, this person has a good degree from a good school. And we trust that means this person is generally knowledgeable and can be trained in the specifics of this job.” For that step you need a good school, and the for-profit ones aren’t that.

One thing the interview didn’t get into, that I would like to know something about, is why people don’t just bypass the for-profit schools in favor of community college. The answer is probably marketing, but I’d like to know more.

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