some of us are brave

How For-Profit Colleges Are Rebuilding The Middle Class?

That’s the title of this infographic using statistics from the professional organization that represents most of the country’s for-profit colleges and institutes:
How Private Sector Colleges are Rebuilding the American Middle Class Infographic

It is truly hard for me to know where to begin.

So, let me begin at the beginning.

Beginnings are funny things, empirically and theoretically. Where you choose to begin your analysis, temporally and theoretically, is hugely important to any conclusions you make. There is a big difference, for example, in measuring economic trends if I start my analysis in Reagan’s 1980s as opposed to Clinton’s 1990s. So it is for almost all analysis. Despite this researchers are often not nearly as clear about why we begin where we do as I think we should be. That’s mostly being sloppy. When the why and how of where data begin is used in marketing like this infographic, I think the intent is more nefarious.

Much of the research on for-profits treats beginnings one of two ways. Economists prefer to assume the “market demand” for education as a given. There is little consideration of what produces that demand. Excellent institutional histories of for-profits tend to peg their modern iteration as beginning around about the 1990s with the ascension of the Internet, financialization schemes that transformed private holdings into stockholding entities, and a (less explicitly) a neo-liberal ideological reconfiguration of public good as private profit maker.

I ask something different about beginnings.

Why did 3.5 million people wake up in the mid-1990s and decide that they needed or wanted a college credential?

Coincidence is not a sociological construct so I assume there is some social process at work here.

What becomes clear in my research is that job insecurity incentivized people to seek out education. And job insecurity is not some natural disaster. It is a consequence of policy, politics, and regulation.

So where did the ascension of for-profit colleges begin? If you ask me, it began with the economic, social, and political trends that dismantled the security and mobility of the middle class.

3.5 million woke up one day and found that their individual relationship with capital and markets and employers was being fundamentally restructured.

3.5 million people looked about for a means of procuring their social position and well-being and the education ideology that says a college degree is the way into the middle class made as much sense as anything else.

3.5 million people went looking for credentials and for-profit colleges organized to respond to them when traditional higher education did not or, because of public disinvestment, could not.

So, I find it inherently disingenuous to position for-profit colleges as a means of rebuilding the middle class when for-profit colleges are a function of the destruction of the middle class.

The infographic goes further to claim that the for-profit college sector does not accept any direct public subsidies.

That’s a slight of hand that is characteristic of industry over-reach.

As my friend and colleague, blogger Surly Urbanist, pointed out, when 26 percent and 64 percent of your student population are veterans and Pell Grant recipients, respectively, you are on the subsidy dole.

It’s the kind of statistic that didn’t need to be said at all, really. Just like the title of the infographic didn’t need to make the bold assertion of “rebuilding” the middle class.

The truth is that some for-profit colleges provide some credentials that some people benefit from having under certain market conditions (namely bureaucracies and regional markets, but I digress). Had this infographic been titled something like, “Private Sector Colleges Respond to Need” or “Private Sector Colleges, By The Numbers” I would have added it to my file of interesting materials but nothing more.

But the truth isn’t sexy enough, right? So, you go for the bold declaration and decontextualized statistics.

And that points to one of my biggest contentions with the for-profit college sector. Institutionally, organizationally, culturally they are just so cynical.

I get that the market rules all. We’re all in the system and we do what we must do to survive. That’s why I don’t take issue with the marketing firm that put this infographic together. Everybody’s hustling, as it were.

But, the social forces that produced this economic and social insecurity that is so critical to the financial success of for-profit colleges deserves better than cynical capitalization that obscures the fault lines of social distress for short-term private profit.

It is good enough, sometimes, to be good enough. A good enough stop gap solution to structural change; a good enough point of access for some students under some conditions. But good enough doesn’t seem to drive quarter over quarter growth. And so we always come back to the profit motive and its consequences for private solutions to inherently public issues.

That’s what you don’t get in this infographic. There is no contextualization, no ethical adherence to the reality of the sector and the society that produced it because good enough isn’t a market plan.

For me, that’s as good a reason as any to be as cynical about for-profit colleges having the ethos and wherewithal to address social ills like those that have jeopardized the very meaning of “middle class” in the U.S. as the sector seems to be about public good. The middle class deserves more than being “rebuilt” for profit. It deserves structural solutions to structural problems but instead we seem to only come up with individual solutions, at a price premium, for deeply social problems.

I get that’s not the job of the market. But that it doesn’t seem to be the culture of the market to make sure you know the difference should give us all pause.


5 comments on “How For-Profit Colleges Are Rebuilding The Middle Class?

  1. katansi
    March 26, 2013

    I’m going to a for-profit CC. My teachers have actually (mostly) been amazing educators that really care. The administration on the other hand is an absolute shit show. And conceited as this will sound, if I wasn’t so smart I wouldn’t know any better because the vast majority of my classmates are set up entirely to fail if/when they transfer to a four year. Most of the classes are remedial level, the departments set minimal standards (which are held up by the state), the cost is high despite those remedial classes, scheduling is a mess and getting appropriate credit hours is absurdly difficult. They also treat their faculty like crap when it comes to pay, control over curricula and hours.

    My favorite part however has to be that they use a third party to disburse and manage federal student loans and don’t give us our loan money (or grant money) til weeks into the semester. Considering that’s the money we’re supposed to use for books, transportation to and from school, and paying bills in order to have a stable personal life off campus, it’s ridiculous that they wait that long. And they wonder why attendance levels drop after enrollment! Gee, think maybe if the students are given THEIR money before school starts they’ll be able to get there? The entire process is infuriating.

  2. Bay Area Food Blog
    March 25, 2013

    I did a guest lecture for for-profit college class on nonprofit management. It was the second to last class of the year. None of the students knew what a 501c3 was.

  3. Jenn
    March 25, 2013

    My mother has worked in for-profit education for the better part of a decade: switching between jobs every year or so as they downsize, resize, layoff, and fire.

    The stories she tells me are truly terrifying: incentives for enrollment officers, intentionally misleading students about the terms of their loans, teachers who are completely computer illiterate, managers with less than a year of experience, job postings at church functions and homogeneous management, enrolling students near death or other disabled that cannot complete their degrees, writing applications for students to pad enrollment numbers, unpaid overtime, retaliation for the use of the HR department, draconian sweatshop-like rules, ridiculous performance metrics (dials instead of retention)… the list goes on.

    She’s worked for five different companies now. All of them are enormous pyramid schemes to put working class Americans in debt for a worthless, non-transferable and sometimes non-accredited degree and transfer public money into private hands. The curriculum is incidental, the main scheme of all of these “colleges” is to make a few people very, very rich before the whole thing collapses around their ears.

  4. Lindsay
    March 25, 2013

    Thank you for providing all this historical context! If I had seen the infographic before reading your post, I probably would’ve just snorted in derision, because I knew that credentials from a for-profit college come at a ridiculously hefty price tag, but I wouldn’t have put together that the only reason the for-profits *exist* is because the middle class is crumbling and states aren’t investing in the public universities as much anymore.

  5. Kristen Chapman Gibbons
    March 24, 2013

    Reblogged this on Big Blue Dot Y'all and commented:
    Such an important area of study. I agree with most of this piece and wish we could have an honest national discussion about it. I am veteran of the For-Profit sector. It isn’t all a scam and these schools (the good ones) have a part to play — but, I’m with tressiemc — the middle class and working poor are the ones that pay that bill.

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