NOTE: This is previously published. I continue to migrate former content to the site. I still stand by this one even as I work to figure out how to address these questions.
It is no secret that I come from a colorful, Southern people. Among those folks there’s a saying that the Devil you know is better than the Devil you don’t know.
It’s a charming colloquialism that pretty much sums up my feelings about for-profits, particularly my feelings about for-profits and students of color.
The academic literature about for-profits is sparse and heavily weighted towards economic discussions of valuation, markets, globalization, and competition. All worthy discussions those but college in the U.S. has never been a purely rational ROI decision.
Education, in general, has been the avenue through which federal battles of citizenship, equity, equality, and justice have been waged. No other social institution has represented the core principles of American-ness as has the American School. It is no accident that that civil rights organizations like SNCC were founded on the campuses of historically black colleges or that the battle for an inclusive Africana curriculum on prestigious white campuses like Cornell were waged by black students. Despite the literature about a black oppositional culture to educational achievement there is a long history of black Americans who fought and died for the right to an education.
We get that education matters.
And in an increasingly competitive free market education came to mean college.
Going to college is not just a matter of economic progress for those who were historically shut out of attending. It represents social capital, access, and respectability. A college degree is not unlike the “American dream” of owning a home in that the ultimate end isn’t the product but the product’s symbolic meaning in a culture that conflates home ownership, a car, and a college degree with being a good person.
So, for-profits aren’t just selling a means to an end. They are not just providing a credential anymore than Sallie Mae was just selling home loans. For-profits are well aware, as judged by the language in their commercials, that they are selling a dream of American respectability.
Yet, what we know about for-profits’ ability to deliver on that promise is woefully inadequate. Researchers and for-profit lobbyists alike mistakenly conflate the income potential of a college graduate of a traditional college with that of a for-profit graduate. Maybe being a graduate of ITT Technical Institute will lead one to earn over $1 million more in his or her lifetime than a high school graduate.* The point is not that for-profits are being dishonest about the value of their degrees. The point is that we do not know if they are lying about the value of their degrees.
What we don’t know about for-profits significantly exceeds what we know about them by anyone’s metric.
Maybe for-profits do a better job of remediating and graduating black and brown students who are too often products of under-served, failing public K-12 systems. Maybe for-profits are charging a fair tuition that is justified by the lifetime return-on-investment. Maybe choosing a for-profit over a traditional college makes sense by every decision-making metric for low-income black and brown students. Maybe, maybe, maybe…but we don’t know. The Department of Education hasn’t moved to collect the kind of institutional data about for-profits that has long been standard at traditional colleges. So, researchers — we few who are inclined to care — are left to piece together quantitative data that does not match the current reality where for-profits are dominating in the enrollment of black, low income students.
The result is that anyone can say damn near anything about for-profits without outright lying. To lie there has to be a definitive truth and right now we are short on truths when it comes to for-profits. So they can tell students with college aspirations and an honest desire for the American dream who don’t have the social capital in equal quantities that a for-profit can get them to the promised land. On the other side detractors can claim that for-profits are predatory and absent of any redeeming social value.
Neither party is lying and neither is telling the truth.
It’s a devil of a problem. And I’m inclined to trust the devil I know over the devil I don’t.
Tressie McMillan Cottom