some of us are brave

“And then SHE said…” A Thought Experiment

In the course of my research I receive a lot of feedback. I mean, a LOT of feedback.

You’ve not lived until the masseuse knocking the comp exams knots out of your back starts to assail you about how much she paid for an unaccredited certificate. Do you know how many times I’ve been verbally attacked in the women’s restroom over someone’s very strong feelings about their degree from Troy University or University of Phoenix? Enough times that I no longer jump when someone strange starts yelling at me under the bathroom stall.

People are very sensitive to my research position on for-profit colleges. And that has bothered me greatly for different reasons, at different times.

One of the primary reasons it has gotten under my skin is because my intentions are never what they’re being called into question as being. Being misconstrued, sometimes not so innocently, tends to rankle a person.

For the most part I am not indifferent but I do think it a useful thought experiment to engage these responses. This post will be a documentation of that thought experiment.

People make the best educational choices for their individual needs! You are an elitist who thinks everyone should go to college the way you did/the way (insert some group) has done!

People do, indeed, make the best choices for themselves…that they know how to make and within the confines of the choices legitimately available to them.

I find this assertion is often wrapped in a person’s individual story of aspiration/failure/success. For example, I get this from the single mom who has worked her way into a good job that provides for her and her son. She needs a degree, any degree, to get to the next salary grade level at her job or to get a better shift or on a better team with a better boss. She often thinks I am judging her individual choices by critiquing the legitimacy of the for-profit sector in which she is enrolled.

I feel that.

But, respectfully, I’m a sociologist. I tend to examine patterns, aggregate data, medians, modes, social movements, institutions and the like. I absolutely concede that many individuals make a way through a for-profit credential.

My questions are less about those individuals than they are about why they had to make that decision to begin with.

For every question I tend to think about the counter question. It’s actually what made me a very successful enrollment counselor during my for-profit days: I could hear the question embedded in the actual question being asked by my prospect.

Similarly, in this line of argument about individual choice I actually hear, “why was a for-profit the only workable option?” Well, often the answer is because traditional colleges are structured in such a way to be unfeasible for parents, adults who must work, or who cares for someone in their family or has any other identity that competes with the unfettered 18 year old we consider the traditional, ideal student.

I think that’s a problem worthy of interrogation. Would for-profits exist if traditional colleges responded to diverse student bodies and needs?

That’s what I’m interrogating. I’m not interrogating why you chose the University of Phoenix. I want to know why UGA or the community college wasn’t a real option for you.

My critique of a system isn’t an indictment on individual choices. It only feels that way because people are sensitive to what I suspect they already know is true:  stratification within the college sector puts some at a distinct disadvantage.

This is the way of the future and you are hopelessly stuck in the past! You are an elitist!

Many of the lines of argument I encounter begin and end with me being an elitist, by the way.

This one is an interesting position because it tends to collapse in on itself.

The reasons that I study for-profit higher education are grounded in my concern about the mobility of low-status people who often tend to be black, latin@, female, single parents, the working poor, and the very poor.

This line of argument would have you to believe that the sparkling future of college education delivery is being built upon a group of low status individuals.

I think that is unlikely.

I am no fortune teller. I could be wrong.

However, I can point to the history of social ideas where there is very little evidence of elite systems being built within low status sectors of the population.

Or, as I often ask, is the black or latin@ mall/shopping district in your community also the premier shopping destination for the wealthy?

It could happen. I simply question if it will happen.

At best the line of argument that for-profit models of education should be the future deserves serious inquiry. I aim to participate in that serious inquiry. Because one thing is fairly certain: unquestioned change in the name of the future often obscures negative consequences.

To be continued…

Future discussions include:

For-profits are more efficient! You’re an elitist!

For-profits don’t bother me with all those classes I don’t want to take! They’re are faster and old fashioned college is full of boring stuff I don’t want/have time to learn. You’re an elitist who just likes that old fashioned college stuff!

For-profits create more college access to more people than ever before! You’re an elitist who only wants college for the privileged few!

For-profit higher education is more responsive to the needs of the workforce!

You hate profit. Traditional colleges have billion dollar endowments. How is that not profit?! You’re a socialist who hates America.


One comment on ““And then SHE said…” A Thought Experiment

  1. “I’m not interrogating why you chose the University of Phoenix. I want to know why UGA or the community college wasn’t a real option for you.”

    This is a valid inquiry, and one that I sought to address in creating a model university during my graduate degree program. In my model university, we had both child care and elder care, helping with intergenerational interactions, as well as providing relief for students who were trapped by caregiving relationships and did not see a way out.

    Additionally, I advocated a commuter’s center, where there was access to computing technology, study space, food centers, lockers, etc., as well as campus housing available for students with children.

    It really was an advanced approach to higher education, but it’s not something that fits into the traditional mode. I think where #4profits get it right is addressing the needs of those, who are not right out of secondary education, or those who are bound by external constraints. Where they lose points is in not addressing all of the student services/student development aspects of higher education beyond nominal measures.

    I think that if you posit the question more as why traditional campuses did not appeal to those interviewed, they may be less defensive. I’m willing to bet, though, that the synchronous class meeting times, the need for standardized test scores, and assumptions that there are courses that “are not in [their] major” would be the highest ranking reasons.

    Have you considered working with faculty researchers at for-profit institutions to see if they can offer any insights? I met a woman with a JD from Georgetown, and she teaches with University of Phoenix, and prefers that mode of learning.

    I find your research fascinating, and I’ll be sure to keep following it here and on Twitter!

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This entry was posted on July 9, 2012 by in Uncategorized and tagged .
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