In the dominant discourse you hear two lines about for-profit colleges. They are either the solution to expansion and access problems in the traditional college sector, which has ignored non-traditional students, or they are draining the federal coffers dry by accelerating the privitization of public education.
Despite what some argue, I actually come down a bit more nuanced than either of those lines of thought.
For-profit colleges are converting a public good into private profit. But the why and the how of it is much more complicated and, spoiler alert, no one comes off as the good guy.
I cover a summary of my current research and I do something I have done only piecemeal (and reluctantly) before: discuss in fuller detail my experiences of working in the for-profit college sector.
Part 1: It’s The Economy, Stupid
When folks like Bill Tierney and Dick Vedder laud the for-profit college sector as a necessary market solution to unmet demand, they forget to address what is creating the demand.
On the other side, the people whose job it is to ask such questions haven’t much given a damn, *coughsociologycough*.
As part of my doctoral research, I am conducting an institutional analysis of the growth of for-profit colleges. What about the mid 1990s made the environment so ripe for rapid expansion? Kevin Kinser gets at this neo-institutionally with a fine analysis of regulation and financialization.
Yet, there must something more than regulatory changes and market innovation to such a massive change in college-going in such a short period of time. Something created a million new people who suddenly wanted a college degree.
In my sample of currently enrolled for-profit students there is one motivation that subsumes all others: job insecurity.
People who have worked pretty steadily for years as manual laborers, secretaries, and customer service are watching the economic trends unfold up close and personal as we bicker about them in the abstract .
They are being laid off. Their supervisors have started tracking how often they take pee breaks to enact draconian dismissal procedures. That has the dual effect of getting rid of a labor expense unit AND denying the worker unemployment insurance because they were fired for failing in their job duties.
People who used to be able to pick up a new job or a second job here and there as life demanded, now cannot find the first job. They are unemployed longer and longer.
They think a degree will help because they are told a degree will help.
And the admissions process at for-profit colleges is designed to respond to this insecurity.
Part 2: I Was An Enrollment Counselor
I was working as a copywriter when I was head-hunted by a company working for a college.
I loved school. I wanted to return to school myself. Working at a school, surrounded by school-y things, sounded like nirvana. Plus, being head-hunted is hella cool.
Three weeks later I was handed a phone list and a recruitment manual at my new job, plopped down at a desk in a room with 15 other people and desks, and told “impress me” by my recruitment manager.
Nicole, the manager, liked to tell us in our bi-weekly team meetings that we were not admissions counselors. We were a sales force. The emphasis was on force.
My primary job on the phones was to call 100 people a day and to get them to walk through the door for an appointment.I was not supposed to give out details about tuition, start dates, nothing. You had to visit for any information. If the caller insisted, I was to end the call with the offer to mail them something and move on.
I was never supposed to use the word admissions. Legally, there were no admissions requirements — like most for-profit colleges this one was open-enrollment, meaning no tests or criteria were required – so we were enrollment counselors instead.
There was only one goal for the enrollment appointment: to get a signed enrollment agreement before they left.
When I tried something more akin to counseling in my first appointment Nicole, who was monitoring, told me that giving the lead an idea of other options in the area would get me fired. We don’t counsel or admit, we enroll.
To get from phone call to “campus visit” appointment, I was to identify during the phone call what would motivate the student. Were they afraid of being unemployed? Were they embarrassed not to be working or in school? Were they trying to get their mother or girlfriend off of their back?
Leads, or prospective students, were assigned randomly except when they weren’t. The hottest leads — those who had initiated first contact with the school — went to the super star closers in the office.
I had the makings of a good closer.
People have always liked talking to me so it proved fairly easy to book appointments. And about half the people I booked showed up. And when they did they seemed to trust me.
Some of that was particular to me, perhaps, but it was also a function of how the enrollment process was designed. I was trained to dress down from my usual gear because I needed to look approachable. I was told that I talked too “proper”. I needed to take it down a notch so as not to intimidate applicants. I should never sit across the desk from a lead. Instead we should always be eye-level, on the same side of the desk to breed familiarity. I was to ask closed-ended questions that social dictates made difficult to answer in any way but affirmatively. “Isn’t this computer lab great?” Yes. “Isn’t this job board useful?” Yes. “Can’t you see yourself here?” Yes.
No objection was too great to be overcome (except a defaulted student loan: that ended an interview and all contact immediately).
If you can’t come because you need childcare, bring your child to the appointment. I often held and nursed babies while giving campus tours. One child was pissing down my shirt as I built on the “yes” habit I’d cultivated with his mother during the tour: “Are you ready to start school?!” Yes.
If you did not have the enrollment fee I could take it in installments or wait as you went to the ATM or give you use of the phone to borrow it from a friend of relative.
What I could not do was waste time on “shoppers”. These were leads that asked questions or indicated they had visited or planned to visit other schools to compare. I should also not waste much time on leads who attended with parents. Parents tend to shop.
The paperwork to enroll in our $70,000 BA programs was minimal. When you showed up, you completed a single page information sheet with all the methods of contacting you and several short answer responses to questions like:
- Why are you interested in going to school?
- What are your career goals?
- What obstacles are preventing you from achieving my goals?
That info sheet was enrollment gold. You guarded them and you tracked them. If a lead mentioned that they didn’t like college the first time, you noted that they probably have existing student loans. If they mentioned a boyfriend, you noted his name as he may be important to the decision to enroll. So on and so on.
To enroll, you would sit with me on the same side of the desk as I explained the sections of a three page document of legalese and details in small print. I told you where to initial and sign. Once you signed, I congratulated you on starting your new, better life as an educated professional with a future.
If you disappeared or stopped taking my calls or seemed unsure at any point between signing that enrollment agreement and completing the financial aid package on the way to the first day of class, I was to refer to that info sheet for a means of motivating you to return.
Institutions aren’t paid by the government until there’s a butt in a seat. My job was to get that ass to a seat.
Of note is what this process did not include. There was not an online application. A credit card was not required. Students could ask questions of a person, directly. There was no SAT or ACT. There was no admissions test (a Wunderlick was instituted later; more on that in a future post).
3. Structure and Agency
My experience is pretty similar to the admissions processes I’ve surveyed from 9 different for-profit colleges for my research project. There are some differences across institution and, especially with regulatory changes, across time. But the process of building motivation into a personalized admissions process centered on the benevolent authority of the enrollment adviser remains common.
So, I do not recount this experience to self-flagellate (much) or to cast for-profit admissions as predatory. I recount it because it has lessons to teach us about how stratification happens at the organizational level.
I’ve come to view the structure of admissions in the for-profit college sector as an organizational response to systemic structural issues.
All asses didn’t come my way for a seat.
When I teach my undergraduates at my elite, private school they all recognize the for-profit college ads I play to introduce the idea of higher education stratification. I ask them why they did not apply to Everest or Strayer when they were applying to college. They tell me that it’s not a school for people like them.
That means they see the same commercials the rest of us see, the ones for-profit students see. But the marketing doesn’t motivate them. The sorting of “real” college and for-profit college, then, has already happened by this point, somehow.
Sometimes I get a student, usually black and always first generation, who meets me after class to tell me that her mother went to Everest or his best friend from high school went to ITT or her sister is at the University of Phoenix.
They do not want to talk about it front of their peers, much in the same way my students often struggle with talking about race or class during Intro to Sociology courses.
For-profit students are similarly hesitant during interviews when I ask them to discuss the milieu in which their educational choices were made. Even when fiercely proud of their education — and many of them are — there is a point of anger for many when asked to explain why a for-profit and not an area traditional college.
There is a sense, often unarticulated until I start prodding, that they made the best choice available to them.
My job is to figure out how those choices were shaped for them and by them.
Some of that is a response to how traditional higher education is organized. Can you imagine applying to your flagship state university by walking into the admissions office with $75 in cash? It is even difficult to do at the local community college I visited recently. And community colleges are, theoretically, designed to serve demographically similar students as those served by for-profit colleges. Waltzing in with cash money is not only a bureaucratic violation but a cultural one. It signals you do not know how “real” college works.
But the greatest correspondence between my data and the for-profit sector’s growth, admissions and matriculation processes is with the weakness in the economy. One finding jumps out immediately: more than educational aspiration and personal edification, fear and insecurity motivates the for-profit students I am interviewing.
That led me to write today:
Rather than a market response to unmet consumer demand, my data tell a story of class insecurity that is transformed into a credentialing process through marketing that sorts, and admissions processes that signal to students that a for-profit credential can provide the security they intuit they need. The success of colleges like Profit U not only responds to the individual pain points of students grappling with increasing competition for fewer good jobs, but organizationally they have responded to weaknesses — pain points — in the social structure.
So, my primary finding so far is: we built this. All of us, we built this.