The Ridiculous Excesses of For-Profit College Marketing**

**Note: I have mentioned that I rarely do line edits on blog posts. Many have surely noticed. I can rarely type quickly enough to keep up with my internal dialogue, hence most of my writing flaws appear here regularly. Editing is always the final step of my writing process. It involves paper and pencil. That rarely happens for a blog post. This post will probably exhibit my writing flaws even moreso than usual because I am writing very, very quickly. That’s somewhat disrespectful to readers. Please accept my apologies.

There’s a great comment to a post I wrote about the admissions process at for-profit colleges. It is from a currently enrolled for-profit student. Ideological trashing of community colleges aside, the comment reveals some of the contradictions I’ve documented in my interviews and participant research in for-profit colleges. Even the community college aside is meaningful, which I’ll explain in a moment. The comment:

As a current student at a for-profit institution, I found your article very insightful. I can see where many of the responses are coming from. Perhaps I have been lucky with my instructors and feel I have received an education that made my time worth it. As a former military veteran (2 wars, Six years) I hate how the media has spun the situation to make it seem that my social peers as well as myself are being “preyed upon”. In fact as a military Team Leader, a well-read individual and a current IT Professional – I find it insulting.

I decided a technical “for-profit” school was better for me as I wouldn’t have to be forced to participate in the extra-curricular crap associated with public universities. I knew walking in it was about them wanting to soak up my GI Bill. Just like I knew the Community College I attended (with a high GPA) wanted to also. Quite frankly – I got tired of some 45 year old bitter divorcee lecturing a classroom full of obnoxious spoiled piss-ants on the liberal interpretation of leadership.

Also, I was sick of not being treated as an adult at a community college. I’ve led grown men in the battlefield. I’ve managed over 1.5 million dollars of mission critical assets at any given time. I’ve taken weeks strait of leadership development courses. I’ve been directly responsible for soldiers lives. I needed a piece of paper that would translate my expertise to employer terms.

ITT did just that…and hell – at least they PAY taxes. Public Schools filter them to fat cat board directors and retirement packages for the establishment “in group”. All Schools are for profit.

There are several threads I want to pull out of this comment. First, the commenter (we’ll call him JJ) is a veteran. The political interrogation of military enrollment in for-profit colleges has been one of the more popular media narratives to emerge from this debate. It picks up on cultural tropes about God and country and our moral obligation to soldiers in ways that narratives about poor single mothers does not. There is current legislation to limit the institutional benefit of enrolling a high number of veterans in for-profit colleges. JJ is at the intersection of that debate.

JJ also alludes to an awareness about the for-profit institutional distinction that is somewhat rare among students I interview or in my casual interactions with the general public. A small survey of online students noted, in an aside I found more interesting than the main findings, that something like 15 percent surveyed had no idea if they attended a for-profit college or not. For all the higher ed wonkiness about this issue, we can often forget that the general public just isn’t into our fetishes.

That JJ is aware of not only the institutions for-profit status but the dominant idoelogical framing of for-profit colleges as predatory suggests his comment is a great reflection of the rationale that we try to measure in rational choice models of why students largely self-select into for-profit colleges (see Chung 2013).

Like many for-profit students, JJ’s educational biography is very important to his perspective on his education. I find, repeatedly, references from students about not liking high school or an earlier attempt at college. Chung addresses this in her study on for-profit students as “lower than median cognitive abilities” among for-profit students, as measured by standardized tests. I rather hate that language but its economics and I get their constructs so I try to pull out meaning without getting stuck on the wording.

What I think Chung addresses that is reflected in stories like JJ’s is that many people in for-profits would really rather have not needed a credential at all. They wish companies respected experience, skills, knowledge. Oddly, people on the ground know that the ideology of companies wanting more skilled labor that is used to justify the for-profits niche (and MOOCs, by the way) is not at all true of how companies hire. They don’t want skilled, if uncredentialed labor, as much as they want some external certification of skill that saves them money on ascertaining that skill or developing it at their expense.

JJ’s “I needed a piece of paper that would translate my expertise to employer terms” is stunning for its summation of how people are living credentialism.

It’s hard not to laugh when some of us that know how to do “real” college see marketing and ads from for-profit colleges. But, JJ’s relative savvy about the credentialism shell game happening in the labor market points to another point about the complexities of these issues.

On twitter today a tweep shared an image of a for-profit college (note that the school became a non-profit this year after 100 years as a for-profit) brochure mailed to us. It notifies her that she has been “selected” to receive an application for a scholarship to their college. It’s obviously problematic. Obviously. Like many on my feed, I snarked about the framing of scholarships as a lottery even as I understood:

Screen shot 2013-08-07 at 2.44.19 PM

I have about 75 hours of interviews with for-profit students for my study on admissions. With some variation by gender and class, all in the survey talk about waking up one day after a long period of economic uncertainty with the idea of going to college.

Middle class folks, like those Annette Lareau talks about in her famous book, cannot fathom this kind of decision process for something as important as going to college. Wealthy and middle class have been going to college since kindergarten. Everything poured into them by their family and social groups, and even in a way by our larger culture, is about teaching them how to do real college.

That means knowing rankings, comparing programs, navigating bureaucracies.

Those are all middle and wealthy class status markers. Traditional colleges set up their admissions process with teh assumption students have them.

But, trust me, there are many people who don’t know that there’s a difference between Emory University and ITT Tech. Unlike JJ, its not that they  know and have calculated for themselves what they need to accomplish their goals. It’s that college is college.

I had one bright student at a large public college say to me that she “applied” to DeVry as a “safety school”. Safety school is the language taught to college tracked kids. It has lots of implicit assumptions about attending knowledge of the prestige hierarchy and competition of traditional college admissions. That this young lady used that language suggests some efforts to counter information asymmetry in her life. Either a mentor or TRiO program or her own ingenuity had done some work and figured out that you spread your admissions risk around to different levels of colleges.

But she applied to DeVry.

She saw no difference between her public uni and DeVry. The class snickered and I stopped them to unpack that. Hopefully, I did it while respecting her intelligence because we don’t often do that.

We laugh at JJ but he knows that all employers want is a piece of paper and he’s earning it the easiest way possible.

We laugh at the stupid for-profit college ads but they know people are making hard decisions in a split second and they need to be the next name to cross those people’s awareness when they do. The content — win a scholarship application! — largely is irrelevant to those not socially conditioned to do real college. It’s just being the next ad after the decision.

We laugh at the young lady with a for-profit safety school. But she’d overcome huge amounts of the enclosures — material, spatial, symbolic — that perpetuate our status culture  to learn some of the more explicit rules of a largely implicit admissions game. That even with all of that ingenuity and effort she still couldn’t figure out the game says more about us than it does her.

This is not judgmental. I laugh at the worst for-profit ads too and I know all of this for a living! It’s natural. We’re human. But I think I just wanted to point out that when we embed our knee-jerk reactions to this kind of stuff in our construction of “lower cognitive abilities” or “prey” or “victims” we’re building in a lot of bias.

I really hope I respect my respondents and the people i study. I really do. The idea that I might not by mistake or lack of attention to how I do my work makes me physically ill.

They deserve it.

9 thoughts on “The Ridiculous Excesses of For-Profit College Marketing**

  1. Have you read Jennifer Silva’s just-published _Coming Up Short_ (2013, Oxford UP)? If not, I highly recommend it. She did a fantastic study on working-class young adults in MA and VA and touches upon some of the educational issues you mention here.

  2. I find Mr. Klenk’s (JJ) comments disturbing precisely because I cannot easily set aside his angry remarks about his community college experience. I know how dangerous it is to generalize from anecdotal or narrow empirical events but I can’t help but wonder if Mr. Klink’s mind set before he entered CC didn’t color his experience while there.
    I’ve spent 36 years working in a public technical college (Wisconsin’s version of CCs) and had many returning vets and serving military personnel in my classes. With one notable exception (severe PTSD) all of these students were well and enthusiastically integrated into the school culture, and virtually all finished their degrees. At a cost of one-tenth that of the local for profit college. Many came in angry and predisposed to judge the political leanings of their instructors, like Mr. Kleink. I suspect that this had a lot to do with their acceptance of the rigid hierarchy and Manichaean nature of their previous employment. As they increase their comfort with entertaining alternative views to their own I often see their leadership skills emerge in new ways; they become more persuasive and dialectical and less prejudicial.
    I certainly can’t speak for any CC other than my own, but our board is unpaid, our retirement packages are a negotiated part of our compensation, and the community return on tech college investment is over 12 to 1 for every public dollar spent on the tech colleges. 88% of our grads are employed in their field within 6 months with an average starting salary of over 36K. And my students are hardly “obnoxious spoiled piss-ants”. Mr. Klenk’s characterization of his previous experience undoubtedly feels authentic to him, but I would be surprised if it was held by a significant proportion of his peers.

    1. Thank you for your comment. For researcher reasons I left aside feedback on the commenter’s critiques. I absolutely understand your response. It is pretty empirically sound.

      If I had time to flesh it out I would comment on how regularly negative schooling experiences pop up in the educational biographies of for-profit students. I think there is much to be said there for why some people reject any institutional culture that triggers those memories. Education has done a lot to traumatize many. I would also like to go down the rabbit hole of something I’ve queried for some time, mostly privately: that the corporatized education movement, of which for-profits are just a positive pole of a scale that includes all of highered, is a rejection by many of the conflict model of traditional (especially liberal arts) education. I know from many who have taught in for-profits that there is institutional pressure to avoid challenging conversation about race, class, gender, for instance. Those are all things that are very uncomfortable for many students. I suspect it is especially so when combined with negative schooling experiences that may have neglected to develop critical engagement skills that help buffer the emotional experience of debating what you believe in a public space. I think that must be really terrifying actually. So I can see embracing a college culture that eschews uncomfortable discussion, focuses on “real world” concerns like skills, etc. If I had time. 🙂

  3. Long time lurker, first time commenter…I wrote a short piece three years ago about the comedy film Accepted and the documentary College, Inc. which seems to resonate with this conversation. This student you profiled here was exactly the kind of student I had in mind when I wrote that piece.

    I do think for-profit colleges often use their own students as shields against criticism. Any critique of for-profit institutions gets flipped into an assault on the students who attend these schools. But as he points out, too much of the anti-for-profit criticism is condescending towards the students who attend these schools. I appreciate your intervention in that classroom discussion about the student who went to DeVry. I teach in the CUNY system and being in “the basement of the Ivory tower” we do get a fair amount of overlap between our institutions and for-profit schools, and I have had former for-profit students in my classes before. I fully agree that those of us in traditional academia should be especially careful not to ridicule the students who attend these schools.That kind of classism plays right into the hands of for-profit institutions. (Maybe that’s a little easier for us at CUNY since we happen to share a city with certain “elite” institutions who look down their noses at us too.)

    I am encouraged by the work you are doing and I look forward to reading more about your research.

    1. Thank you for de-lurking! And for the great comment.

      First, I think “Accepted” is a grossly overlooked film about education and the sociological imagination. I made my adviser watch just this last semester! LOL I can’t believe more people have not picked up on its fairly wry critique of status and prestige.

      CUNY has one of the most innovative institutional responses to for-profits that I’ve seen. I’d really love to talk with you. I’m in ASAs tomorrow, FYI. If not then, definitely let’s email, etc.?

      1. Good luck with ASA this weekend. There’s a slight chance I might be in the vicinity of there with some soc friends, but that is very tentative. But certainly we can be in touch by email later.

  4. JJ sounds like one of those guys that has connections already lined up or plans to be career m military and using the degree just for promotion points. The fact he is a current student speaks more volumes than his post. He has not seen the price tag beyond the gi bill. He hasnt seen the lack of transferability. And he hasnt seen them milk his financial aid so hard they demand loans/cosigners and keep his (untransferable) credits ransom. I come across this mentality all of the time from CURRENT for-profit college students.

  5. From what I’ve seen, the notion of college as an upper and middle class priority definitely plays a part in attitudes like JJ’s.
    When you are used to getting respect according to the rules of military culture, it is difficult to suddenly be told you have to go back and re-earn respect in a culture that doesn’t follow the same rules. Especially if that culture has always devalued you and everyone you care about along classist lines, as has definitely been the case with many of the students I’ve seen who are going back for degrees after entering the military directly out of high school.
    It’s difficult to remove class/income prejudice and privilege blindness from debates over for-profit colleges. A lot of what I see JJ responding to in his comment is the privilege that informs some of what he’s read. It wouldn’t be a huge leap to me from his words to guess that he’s also reacting within a context of lived experience with similar privilege and opposition to the role in which it casts him.
    It’s always unfortunate to me when education becomes part of an axis of oppression. I do believe higher education has value for itself, but I can’t blame someone like JJ for resenting the idea that his achievements have no value without it and preferring the expediency of a for-profit university.

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