When is a Real College A Real College?

Does college promise you a job?

That’s the gist of recent Borrower Repayment Defense Rule, covered today in the Washington Post by Jeffrey Selingo:

A little-known rule called Borrower Defense to Repayment, which is making its way through the regulatory process in Washington, initially was aimed at cracking down on the fraudulent behavior of for-profit colleges. But the rule released last month and set to take effect next July applies to any college or university, including traditional non-profit institutions.

The 230-page rule is based on one sentence that was written into the renewal of the Higher Education Act by Congress in the early 1990s. It allows student-loan borrowers to make a claim for “acts or omissions of an institution.” The current regulation, on the books since 1994, is pretty ambiguous about what kind of acts or omissions rise to the level of the federal government discharging loans.

The newest, supposedly more clear version of the rule would allow students debt relief if their college mislead them using job placement data.

As it happens, the title of my dissertation was “Becoming Real Colleges in the Financialized Era of U.S. Higher Education: The Expansion and Legitimation of For-Profit Colleges”.

I wanted to know if for-profit colleges are real colleges and if they are or are not, how could we explain that?

A real college is a legitimate college. We believe in it and, most importantly, we believe in the symbolic pieces of paper a real college issues (“credentials”).

If we don’t believe in a college, the college runs afoul of all kinds of legitimacy policing: moral policing (is this proper?), regulatory policing (is this legal?), political policing (is this right?).

David Halperin has an article with a list of the many regulatory and legal cases pending and settled against for-profit colleges. That suggests that maybe we don’t think of them as real colleges.

That’s fine. Except, it is hard for us to police for-profit colleges without also policing traditional “real” colleges.

Job placement data is a really good example of the problem that presents.

I collected the job placement data materials from large, publicly-traded for-profit colleges. Then I compared those documents with the messages the for-profit enrollment staff told me when I went through enrollment. I wanted to know how these schools used job placement data to talk about the school’s legitimacy.

They rely on it a lot.

But so do real colleges.

That’s what I found when I compared this with materials from real colleges in the same geographic region.

So, why is it that for-profits get in trouble when they try to use job placement data and real colleges rarely do? My analysis argued:

Chapter Five puts the various legitimation accounts produced by for-profit colleges in the context how various actors challenge their legitimacy. That account (assembled from analysis of 74 legal actions against for-profit colleges by federal, state and consumer agencies between 2008 and 2014) argues that macro processes produced for-profit colleges’ expansion and its legitimacy crisis.

The sector’s claim to legitimacy rests on its utility (redressing skills gaps in the labor market). That utility account provides clear objective measures against which for-profit colleges can be judged while the profit-motive constrains for-profit colleges from cultivating subjective measures of legitimacy (e.g. campus culture) that offset evaluations of traditional colleges.

These objective measures of utility include graduation rates and job placements. For-profit colleges struggle to meet those objective measures because of the stratified resources that status cultures bring with them to for-profit colleges: wealth inequalities, parental status, racial and gender discrimination, etc. Without making substantial investments in the material resources demonstrated to mitigate these structural inequalities for their likely students, for-profit colleges must continue to rely on political inertia rather than normative legitimacy as shield against evaluative inquiries.

We don’t ask real colleges to actually live up to their job placement data because we think that they are real colleges for reasons that are larger than only job placement. That’s about a long narrative constructed about college as a moral and social good.

For-profit colleges adhere to the principles of the skills gap. They say that they are real colleges because they solve an economic problem, i.e. retrain workers for popular jobs. That’s all they do. Anything else is a distraction: research, faculty development, community development, civics.

That economic problem is fundamentally an individual problem — one of income and employment. There is an assumed, implicit and indirect social good when a group of individuals make some income and get a job. But, the actual transaction is an individual good.

When for-profit colleges fail at the one thing upon which they are considered even marginally legitimate, then they fail at the entire enterprise.

Whether it is fair or not, traditional colleges have cultivated a strong, diverse narrative of their legitimacy that is subjective enough to withstand scrutiny of its job placement data. That may be why traditional colleges aren’t worried about legal claims that they mislead students with job placement data.

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One thought on “When is a Real College A Real College?

  1. I suspect that the job placement rates of “real” colleges are self-generated, and skewed by non-responses or lies by people who did not get jobs “in their field” (they feel like failures, they blame themselves, it is easier to just not answer the survey question or to lie about it than to tell the truth–that they have a BA in history or sociology or philosophy or music and they are delivering pizza, working retail, or something else that pays badly and does not require a degree). Of course, there are lots of other reasons to go to college other than getting a credential that will lead to employment. But if students are going to end up $30-$40 thousand in debt (as most do) then the credential becomes important. And I, for one, do not trust the statistics prepared by the institutions that have a vested interest in making their outcomes look good. We need some independent evaluations of just how successful graduates are in getting jobs with an income high enough to justify investment–in both time and money. And that goes for both for-profit and non-profit, public and private.

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