Cottom decries for-profit colleges

(Allie Gath)

A school is a school is a school.

Between 1999 and 2010, a majority of Americans believed all colleges, whether non-profit or for-profit, were the same, according to Tressie McMillan Cottom, author and sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Unfortunately, those Americans were wrong. A for-profit college is an institution which does not invest its revenue back into the school, said Cottom. Instead, the investors and shareholders take the money home.

Cottom spoke about the inequalities surrounding these for-profit colleges during her talk, “Social Mobility and Higher Education: Whose opportunity and for what?” on Wednesday evening in the McCarthy Center Forum.

Cottom called for-profit colleges, such as the University of Phoenix, Strayer University and the now defunct I.T.T. Technical Institute a “negative social insurance program,” and said their expansion was a response to the economic conditions of that time period.

“Perhaps 40 years ago, in response to the massive job insecurity and changes in how we work, we probably would have increased public higher education. That’s what we once did,” she said. “What we did instead was increase federal financial aid options that allowed people to go into the private market of for-profit colleges to earn a credential.”

In 1999, over half the students enrolled in a for-profit college had no idea they were attending a for-profit college, she said.

“The vast majority of Americans have no sense of distinction. They watch the commercials, get the mailers, and it’s all the same thing to them – college,” she said.

Additionally, the student bodies of these universities were disproportionally made up of minorities, according to Cottom. African Americans accounted for 22 percent of students in the for-profit college sector, Hispanics made up 15 percent and women made up 65 percent.

“To talk about the for-profit college phenomenon in the first half of the 21st century is to talk about a gendered-phenomenon. This was about women,” said Cottom, “especially minority women.”

Between 1999 and 2010, for-profit college enrollment in the U.S. grew by 227 percent, according to Cottom. In 2008, enrollment in these institutions was at a high point, with 1.5 million to 2 million students.

“It represented a historical sea-change for a lot of minority students about where they were being educated. It was a historical moment in time,” she said.

For-profit colleges were “financialized” during this time period, said Cottom, and the largest for-profit colleges were shareholder colleges. People could buy and trade shares of these schools.

A “significant amount” of private and public money was poured into for-profit schools which enrolled the most minority students the fastest, and were being publicly traded.

Cottom said she first noticed a problem with for-profit colleges in 2009, when The Chronicle of Higher Education named the University of Phoenix as the number one producer of African American bachelor degree holders in 2008.

Because Cottom, as well as most of her friends and family, had attended historically black colleges or universities, she knew how “central” those colleges were to the production of black bachelor degree holders.

“I knew the University of Phoenix shouldn’t be on the list, much less number one,” she said. 

Cottom spoke with a professor from Duke University about the University of Phoenix, and said he had no idea what it was.

“It was as invisible to him as it had once been to me, as it was for a majority of Americans,” she said. “Because of that, he had never thought about how this place producing the majority of African American graduates signaled a historic change in the patterns of how African Americans were being educated in the United States.”

Cottom explained as a black woman and a former employee of I.T.T. Tech, she could see the difference between the University of Phoenix and the historically black colleges she and her family attended. 

“I knew how to ask that question in a fundamentally different way than almost everybody else in my professional field,” she said.  “That’s one of the first and most important things that I think you bring to social science research.”

Cottom said she found students are “trapped” in the idea that education can fix everything.

If someone is scared of losing their job, feeling insecure or burdened with many financial responsibilities, their only recourse is to attend school, she said. Those students are more likely to attend a for-profit college.

Cottom said to counteract this, the U.S. should provide “actual social insurance,” which would include lowering the student loan debt, increasing the minimum wage and investing in public higher education.

“If you want education to mean something, you have got to make it so people don’t choose it out of desperation,” she said.

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