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By Tod Massa
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LOWER ED: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy by Tressie McMillan-Cottom , PhD, is an Assistant Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, (@tressiemcphd) is the book on higher education you should read this year. Not because it is a diatribe against all the things wrong with for-profit education, but precisely because it is not that. Dr. Cottom takes us through her experience as an enrollment officer for two different for-profit colleges and combines that with years of research into the students, the reasons they “choose” for-profits, and the institutions themselves. I have “choose” in quotes because it is not really the accurate verb. Dr. Cottom explains how students end up considering and enrolling in for-profit colleges.

Short answer (though it is a relatively short book and a lovely read) is the failure of the social contract. Employers having abandoned training of their own, rising credentialism, and public institutions having to find greater and greater efficiencies to deal reduced levels of state support. It is also the nature of the New Economy.

“In the knowledge economy, technological advancements make human labor more efficient. We can produce more with fewer workers. A consequence of that efficiency has been greater economic insecurity. The more insecure people feel, the more they are willing to spend money on an insurance policy against low wages, unemployment, and downward mobility.”

Credentials, and the promises made about them, represent those insurance policies.

LOWER ED comes out at an opportune time. In the summer, we had the release of “Paying the Price”   by Sara Goldrick-Rab which tells us how the financial aid system is failing us.  The study by Kristin Blagg and Matt Chingos of the Urban Institute on Choice Deserts: How Geography Limits the Potential Impact of Earnings Data on Higher Education informs us of the limits that creating more and better information has on changing on enrollment behavior and institutional choice. And in the last week, we have the release of the draft report from the National Bureau of Economic Research by Caroline Hoxby, “The Returns to Online Postsecondary Education” which, it turns out, is less about online education’s failure than a failure to recognize that 77% of the student (tax) records in the study were at for-profit colleges and that the continuing use of data that does not allow separation of completers from non-completers will always be problematic.

Together, these four pieces, help us to understand why things aren’t working the way we think they logically should. 

1)Our understanding of the real cost of attendance and what it takes to support successful college attendance is far from what it should be.

2)Better information does not always lead to better choice, because realistically, not every student has the same opportunity of choice and addressing cost.

3)There is an “education gospel” at work that drives behavior; a gospel for which many of us are responsible, but that doesn’t do what we probably think it should – teach people to discriminate based on quality.

4)A human answering the phone in the first couple of rings, not a voicemail decision tree, will do more to enroll and support prospective students than almost anything else.

5)Time is a scarcer resource for underserved students than we have ever realized.

Read LOWER ED for what Dr. Cottom says, and what she doesn’t say. What she doesn’t say, but everything she points to seems to scream out, is that there are lessons here for public higher education to take to heart. There are clearly things we can do to better serve students and prospective students.

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