Let’s Stop Condescending to For-Profit College Students

We snark at those who don’t reach “real college.” But they’ve surmounted huge obstacles to get as far as they have.

DeVry Recruiter
A representative from DeVry University in Westminster, Colo., speaks with U.S. sailors about the private institution.

Photo courtesy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Justin Webb/U.S. Navy

I study the for-profit college sector, and recently wrote about the admissions process at for-profit colleges, which attracted a great comment from a reader who’s also a student at the for-profit ITT Technical Institute:

Perhaps I have been lucky with my instructors [to] feel I have received an education that made my time worth it. As a former military veteran (two wars, six years), I hate how the media has spun the situation to make it seem that my social peers as well as myself are being “preyed upon.” In fact, as a military team leader, a well-read individual, and a current IT professional, I find it insulting …

Also, I was sick of not being treated as an adult in a community college. I’ve led grown men in the battlefield. I’ve managed over $1.5 million of mission-critical assets at any given time … I needed a piece of paper that would translate my expertise to employer terms.

ITT did just that … and hell—at least they pay taxes. Public schools filter them to fat cat board directors and retirement packages for the establishment “in group.” All schools are for profit.

There are several threads I want to pull out of this comment. First, the commenter—we’ll call him J.J.—is a veteran. The political interrogation of military enrollment in for-profit colleges has been one of the more popular narratives to emerge from the media debate on the for-profit college sector, even inspiring legislation to limit the institutional benefit of enrolling high numbers of veterans in for-profit colleges. This narrative picks up on cultural tropes about God and country and our moral obligation to soldiers in ways that narratives about, say, low-income single mothers do not. J.J. is at the intersection of that debate.

Second, J.J. has an awareness of the institutional distinction of for-profits—not to mention their reputation as predatory—that’s somewhat rare among the students I’ve interviewed for my research or in my casual interactions with people outside academia. A small survey of online students noted that 17 percent surveyed had no idea if they attended a for-profit college or not.

Third, like many for-profit students, J.J.’s educational biography—his experience of “not being treated as an adult in a community college”—is very important in shaping his perspective. In my interviews with for-profit students, they often talk about not liking high school or an earlier attempt at college. Anna Chung of the University of Michigan attributes some of these frustrations to “low cognitive abilities” among for-profit students, as measured by standardized tests and high school achievement. (I rather hate that language, but I try to pull out meaning without getting stuck on the wording.)

What Chung addresses, and what’s reflected in J.J.’s story, is that many students in for-profits would have rather not needed a credential at all. They wish companies respected real-world experience, skills, and knowledge. Oddly, the ideology of companies wanting more skilled labor is used to justify—and market—MOOCs and the for-profits niche, even if this ideology doesn’t square with how companies actually hire. J.J.’s “I needed a piece of paper that would translate my expertise to employer terms” is stunning for its summation of how people are living with credentialism.

For those of us who know how to do “real” college, it’s hard not to laugh when we see marketing and ads by for-profit colleges. I travel Atlanta’s public transportation documenting these ads for my research, and I often capture that sentiment from fellow passengers. Recently, some of us on Twitter snarked about this brochure, which informs the recipient that she has been “selected” to receive an application for a scholarship to their college.

My colleagues and I know that scholarship applications aren’t distributed by lottery. If you are one of the many adults fortunate enough to have had parents with the means to live in neighborhoods that afforded you access to some of this country’s better school systems, you also likely know that. It is less clear that most for-profit students necessarily know that.

I have about 75 hours of interviews with for-profit students for my study on admissions. With some variation by gender and class, all those in the survey talk about waking up one day after a long period of economic uncertainty with the idea of going to college. Middle-class folks—the kind that Annette Lareau talks about in Unequal Childhoods—cannot fathom this kind of decision process for something as important as going to college. Wealthy and middle-class kids have been going to college since birth. Everything poured into them by their family and social groups is about teaching them how to do real college. That means knowing rankings, comparing programs, navigating bureaucracies—these are all middle- and upper-status markers.

But trust me, there are many smart people who don’t know the difference between Emory University and ITT Tech. Unlike J.J., it’s not that they know and have calculated for themselves that ITT gives them what they need to accomplish their goals. It’s that college is college.

I had one bright student at a large public college say to me that she “applied” to DeVry as a “safety school.” Phrases like “safety school” are part of the language taught to college-tracked kids; using that language implies knowledge of the prestige hierarchy and competitive elements of traditional college admissions. That this young lady used that language indicates her efforts to counter information asymmetry in her life. Whether with the help of a mentor, TRIO program, or her own ingenuity, she had figured out that you spread your admissions risk around to different levels of colleges.

But she applied to DeVry.

She saw no difference between her public university and DeVry. The class snickered and I stopped them to unpack that. Hopefully, I did it while respecting her intelligence—because we don’t often respect for-profit students’ intelligence. Yet they intuitively understand the realities of the labor market, credential inflation, and competition for fewer good jobs better than most.

We laugh at J.J., but he knows that employers want a piece of paper, and he’s earning it the easiest way possible.

We laugh at the stupid for-profit college ads, but the marketers know that people are making hard decisions in a split second, and they need to be the next name to cross those people’s awareness when they do. The content—win a scholarship application!—is largely irrelevant to those who are not socially conditioned to do real college.

We laugh at the young lady with a for-profit safety school. But she’d worked through huge material, spatial, and symbolic enclosures to learn some of the more explicit rules of a largely implicit admissions game. That even with all of her ingenuity and effort she still couldn’t figure out the game says more about the game than it does her.

This piece is adapted from McMillan Cottom’s blog, tressiemc.