Degrees of Gender

I’ve had a project on gender and for-profits for a few months now. This paper is currently under review in a later format. I will also be presenting some of the ideas set forth in this paper at SSS this year with preliminary data from my research with for-profit students.

A few images:

ITT Tech Commercial

The Intro follows:

Degrees of Gender: Gendered Organizational Theory and For-Profit Colleges and Universities

“Being a teen parent, minimum wage job – and I said, you know what? No excuses for me. I’m on my way. Welcome to my school [image of Everest College].  Everything they need in the doctor’s office? Right here. [hugs older female teacher] This is like a second mom. She taught me everything…[voice-over] If she can do it. You can do it. Pick up the phone and call right now and start right now on a road to a rewarding career and a better life.” (Everest College Commercial, 2009)


“Remind them of what things will be like if they don’t continue forward and earn their degrees. Poke the pain a bit and remind them who else is depending on them and their commitment to a better future.” (ITT Technical Institute’s Recruitment Manual, “Pain Funnel”, in Senate HELP report, 2012)


“We deal with people that live in the moment and for the moment. Their decision to start, stay in school or quit school is based more on emotion than logic. Pain is the greater motivator in the short term.” (Vatterott Educational Corporation documents in Senate HELP report, 2012)

“Enrolling in Everest upped my pimp game 2000 percent, nigga. There’s [sic] some cool bitches at this motherfucker.  And check this out: they all got low self-esteem.” (VanElder, 2010)


Why a gendered analysis of for-profit higher education? As the above epigraphs suggest, both the for-profit college sector and the greater public imaginary casts women – particularly single mothers, poor women, and minority women – as the typical for-profit student. That should put gender at the center of empirical and theoretical analysis of the explosive growth the for-profit college sector. Instead, scholarship has neglected the gendered history and the contemporary gendered enrollment patterns of for-profit sector.

I argue that this primarily a failure of the rational choice and neo-institutional theories that dominate empirical analysis of for-profits, specifically, and higher education organizations more generally. In the former, rational choice theories do not proffer a theoretical mechanism for conceptualizing group positions in the social structure or the organizational mechanisms that reproduce inequality. In the latter, dominant neo-institutional theories do not interrogate the organizational arrangements that reproduce unequal access to resources, capital, or mobility. Those organizational arrangements include institutional practices like those in the epigraphs above: the identification of a student’s pain as an enrollment process only makes sense if one’s target population is expected to have pain points. In 2007–2008, 69 percent of for-profit students were female and 16 percent of for-profit students received some form of government public assistance. This compared to 55 percent and 3 percent, respectively, in not-for-profit colleges (National Center for Education Statistics 2012). If your organizational logic is grounded in pain points, then poor women on government assistance who intuit they need a credential for a job that will change not only their lives but the lives of their children and families seems a good place to start.

Empirical evidence about the social costs poor single mothers encounter are numerous. They include acute fears of domestic violence (Edin 2000), sub-par access to health care services (Edin & Lein 1997), increased rates of depression (Brown & Morgan 1997), and some studies show a “motherhood penalty” that negatively impacts labor outcomes and earnings (Correll, Benard & Paik 2007) . If for-profits are institutionally aware of their success enrolling poor single mothers, as documents suggest they are, then the “pain funnel” approach to enrollment reflects an organizational logic that rationalizes gendered social inequality through bureaucratic processes.

There are good reasons to examine the for-profit college sector. In 2000, for-profit colleges accounted for three percent of all enrolled undergraduates in the United States. In 2009, the sector accounted for nine percent, or 1.2 million students. That makes for-profits the fastest growing sector of higher education. For-profit colleges are more expensive than all but the most elite private degrees with relatively non-existent admissions criteria. As a consequence of their open admissions and access to federal student loan programs, for-profit colleges have grown quickly and millions of students have accumulated large amounts of debt attending them. Almost 70 percent of those students are women.

Despite this, it is difficult to interrogate why so many women enroll in expensive for-profit degree programs because the dominant market morality – the social construction of economic market processes as inherently right and natural (Polanyi 1957) – casts individual actors as education consumers while ignoring the organizational forces that constrain individual decision-making. A gendered analysis redresses this theoretical limitation and provides the best way to answer the question: how can a gendered understanding of organizational forms and processes explicate why so many women are enrolled in for-profit colleges?

One thought on “Degrees of Gender

  1. Nice study. I think you should consider (and you may already) the role of online education. I have experience working in for-profit, public, and private higher ed (both online and offline). I notice clear patterns related to gender in online v. offline classes regarding the motivations students report in their introductions for why they are taking my course. Online education is percieved as a way to continue their education without disrupting the family. Moms can remain stay at home moms, for example. This semester, I have about 80 students in my online sections at the public community college where I work. I have four students that have reported that not only are they pregnant, but due during the semester. I rarely have students in in-person courses both pregnant and due during the semester, let alone 4. Online education is assumed to be something that can done around a pregnancy and a new birth. This is absolutely fascinating to me. It also suggests a gendering of higher ed in terms of where (online or in-person) men and women receive their education. I’m very interested in how online education works in both the for-profit and non-profit sector of higher ed. I’m torn. Online education reaches students who otherwise would not have a chance to earn a college degree, but I am beginning to think it mostly just reproduces inequality. I don’t think it has to be this way.

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