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.