A new report on for-profit colleges was issued by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research today. In short, the paper finds:
Student parents at for-profit colleges are taking on 10 times the annual loans of student parents attending community colleges.
The majority (62 percent) of single student parents have an expected family contribution (EFC) of $0, with no financial resources to devote to their educational expenses. This is compared to 20 percent of postsecondary students without children and 18 percent of married students.
Single student parents have 20–30 percent more debt than other students one year after graduation. Ten years after graduation, they still owed more than three times as much debt as their classmates.
Student parents are more likely than traditional students to say that financial difficulties are likely to result in their withdrawing from college (Miller, Gault, and Thorman 2011).
The findings did not surprise me. During research on a paper I worked on earlier in the year it became clear in the data that there is a gender issue in for-profit attendance. In fact, there’s a gendered-race issue in for-profits. The report (which is blissfully brief!) is right to talk about “single student parents” but I will go further to say within in that group the majority are women. We’re mostly talking about single moms here; single moms who are primary caretakers.
Other data is clear that single parents are at high risk of dropping out of college. We understand why: scheduling conflicts, financial burdens, sick children, weak social safety nets, a car repair, a late child support check — it doesn’t take much to break the proverbial camel’s back when you’re a single mom.
What this report does not say is something else I’ve seen both in the data and in my experiences in for-profits. A disproportionate number of those single moms are black. This isn’t just a gender issue. It’s a race issue. It’s an intersectionality issue.
Black women are statistically more likely to be single heads of households. They bear the double brunt of limited labor and educational paths thanks to being both black AND female. Yet, the data shows they are, as a group, remarkably aspirational. They outnumber their male counterparts in every sector of higher education from community college through graduate studies. And many of them do it while being single parents. From my own experience I’ve seen this from two angles: as a for-profit admissions counselor and as a black woman. In the former, I certainly had white students, er, prospects. But, by far, the majority of those who enrolled in ITT and Empire where black. If they were not black the common denominator was parental status. As a black woman I see this across class and educational level. Among my peers over half of those with graduate degrees have earned them from a for-profit school. A very unscientific assessment of the educational biographies of a black greek letter organization social media page was clear: almost all the schools listed were Arygosy, the University of Phoenix, and Strayer. Again, the common denominator is their parental status. The structure of my doctoral education is difficult for anyone but it is particularly difficult for single parents. Conference travel, study groups, a schedule that changes every semester — it all adds up to an inhospitable environment for parents who need stability, child care, and an extra set of hands at home.
It’s no wonder, then, that accelerated degree plans and flexible schedules in “gendered” fields like healthcare and education where for-profit programs proliferate appeal to this demographic. Traditional universities are very much part of the problem. Colleges, particularly state colleges with a charter mission to serve the public good, have been slow to offer the kind of flexibility and accessibility that would support single parents in earning a college degree.
And as we know, nature abhors a vacuum.
In steps for-profits with a solution, albeit a very expensive solution.
The result: the poorest and most fragile of us are paying the most for credentials with the most questionable outcomes.
Yet again, society is exacting a price from women for giving birth. This time that price is paid by the public for the profit of shareholders.
Whether you consider that competition or preying depends on your perspective. I won’t wade in there right now.
I will say that there is a long historical record of institutions that, in an effort to enter a new market as for-profits are doing in higher education, leverage black and poor audiences to gain financial share. If you’re old enough to remember when UPN or FOX television was born you may also remember than all of the initial programming featured mostly black casts and programming aimed at lower-middle class audiences. Blacks and poor folks are often the low hanging fruit in an industry. They’re cheap to reach and because they’re just happy to be courted don’t often ask for much in return from institutions.
But eventually these institutions move from “Homeboys in Outer Space” to “Glee” and “One Tree Hill”. It’s a classic story of an institution wanting to be associated with middle America, aspirational culture.
That’s not to say for-profits will consume all the zero EFC federally guaranteed student loan dollars from single moms and blacks and working class students it can before moving towards the center of the traditional higher education market: white, male students with higher EFCs but also higher status.
But, it’s also not to say they won’t.
Who is left holding the bag for their increased market share in that scenario? That’s probably a question we should be asking.