Not Our Kind of People: Why No One Talks To For-Profit Students

Just as I was reading the latest newsflash from NCES on today’s data release on higher ed employees and student aid, my e-mentor Sara Goldrick-Rab of UW-Madison was already tweeting the juiciest tidbits:

The net price difference among two years is also reported:

But Sara’s question of “Why?” is what I want to focus on.

It’s a crude methodology but a quick search of research on for-profit colleges on Google Scholar yields you 53,400 results:

I cannot promise you that I’ve read all those sources but I am going to have to lay some claim to authentic authority here. I have worked in the sector and even then I followed closely news about it, if only to make sense of my own questions. As a doctoral student I have now studied this area for three years as both a sociologist and an educational researcher. I have alerts set for all new publications and I set aside two days out of my schedule every week to scan the latest developments because the area moves so quickly.

I have written literature reviews and compiled reading lists for various audiences. I have even badgered the poor librarian at a school I do not even attend about his online library guide on for-profit colleges.

In my educated opinion I feel confident saying that almost none of those articles interrogate WHY students choose for-profit colleges. And I qualify with “almost” as a hedge, not as a signal of any great doubt.

And I have some thoughts as to why that is.

There’s the nature of institutional and organizational research to obscure questions of why. The research on for-profits has tilted towards economic functional choice orientations because the point of entry theoretically is so often a discussion of financial aid and cost. And we really seem to believe such things are rational discussions. For-profit colleges are also not research institutions. The wealth of literature we have about traditional college students stems, in large part, from the population being easy to access for academic researchers. We know a lot more about traditional students because traditional college researchers have access to them. For-profits have little incentive or organizational structure to do similar research. And, they have not been particularly open to granting that access to outside researchers for various reasons.

But that’s not the reason I want to talk about right now.

I’ve been on both sides and I can tell you that there also exists in traditional academe a callous disinterest in the kinds of people who attend for-profits. Not to belabor David Harding’s statistic but 1 in 10 black college students is enrolled in the for-profit sector. The for-profit student population is almost 70% female. For-profit students are poorer than traditional students. They are also more likely to be single parents and engaged in the welfare system.

Basically, they aren’t “our” kind of students.

I have gotten some academic version of that from professors, administrators, and editors enough to know that it is not a coincidence that we have interrogated more deeply education markets than we have decision-making models of for-profit students.

There’s the professor who told me, flatly and repeatedly, in a grant writing session that “these people weren’t going to ever go to a real college so make me care.”

There’s the colleague who abandoned her research on for-profits after one too many economic journals told her that the research was too narrow and of little general interest.

Major funding organizations profess to care about bodies of knowledge; bastions of truth and light and intellectual inquiry that they are. But, again I return to organizational logics. In tough economic times investing in the research of populations that are perceived as irrelevant to your core audience — other academics from traditional colleges — can seem like a poor investment.

And of the researchers who do study for-profits there still exists a disdain for the actual students they study. Embedded in the theoretical orientations of almost all those for-profit articles I read, research, and collect is a notion that the students are cogs being swept along by rational forces. Inherent in that assumption is that there is no reason to ask those cogs WHY they do it because they are likely too stupid to have any reason other than those we’ve grafted onto them.

We say they enroll because they are poor and don’t have options and because they don’t know any better or because they are parents.

And all of that may be true.

But we could also find that some students decide that the price of feeling like a social outcast in a traditional college that seeks to “transform” them through a very political, historically violent process that demands you exchange all of your old identities for a new, better one is not worth the savings.

Or, they just may not like parking so far from their classroom.

Or, they may not like the food in the cafe.

Or, or, or…

We don’t know why.

And that’s the point.

Also to the point is that  organizational forces and individual prejudices have made it so that we don’t have to ask why to get published, to get the grant, to get the citation.

For-profit students aren’t “our” kind of people. But they are still people.

Asking them “why” is to respect their autonomy as such.

Here’s hoping we figure that out.

3 thoughts on “Not Our Kind of People: Why No One Talks To For-Profit Students

  1. I have attended both a private for profit technical school and a public university and I feel like I got the best of both worlds. I have heard some horror stories about small technical for profits and I have heard high praise. I think what made my experience unique was that I was able to walk right out of that private education and into a good paying job with benefits. (That Aetna was not the best of health care providers is another story but there were other options that I didn’t take advantage of at the time) I chalk that up to a lack of maturity on my part and also the fact that I am only now in my final semester of undergraduate work when I should have graduated in 2008 if I had stayed on schedule. But right now, things are looking up and I have a reason to be grateful and humble. And that works for me. The philosophy of for profits is often unique to the institution and philosophically may or may not be mainstream. That is part of the appeal and for some students who may be on the low end of the economic spectrum, it may be the uniqueness or niche market that the for profit exposes them too seem valuable enough to make the larger economic sacrifice worth the investment. I don’t get the sense that you acknowledge just what a driver this is in the for profit market and I think it’s worth pointing out in a friendly way, as someone who knows the appeal of both kinds of institutions. The reason I decided to go back to a public college was that my job had been in the hospitality industry which suffered after 911 and I made a life choice to leave the job where I had once had benefits but the company which is Fortune 500, could no longer afford to provide me with. I needed more and a public university offered it. Now I will have the best of both worlds and I think both experiences and schools have value.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


I will be revisiting this article. For now, just read and enjoy.


Adam Smith Warns: Beware the Profit-Seekers

This reminds me of the time I read Smith in a grad seminar. I mention the reading offhandedly to my mentor, the economist. His response: Do they know the REAL Adam Smith? That’s a good question for us all. Do we know the real Adam Smith?