#NACACreads: For-Profit Colleges Examined in ‘Lower Ed’

Tressie McMillan Cottom

How do students interpret the value of for-profit colleges?

You may be surprised. Tressie McMillan Cottom — author of Lower Ed — certainly was.

While the high cost of attending for-profit schools automatically triggers concerns about debt and default for many college counselors, price is often viewed in an entirely different light by students.

“I was stunned to learn that students used high price to indicate institutional quality,” she tweeted during a Monday #NACACreads discussion of her book. “That alone subverts almost everything we know!”

The observation can help explain (at least in part) the recent rise of for-profit schools in US. The institutions serve more than 2 million people, enrolling a disproportionate number of America’s poor and minority students.

Cottom, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who previously worked in enrollment at two for-profit colleges, doesn’t see the sector losing steam anytime soon. She says traditional colleges can learn more about the needs of today’s students by examining the appeal of for-profits, which “excel at articulating clear connections from degree to labor market.” She also noted that many of the schools have thrived precisely because their marketing and enrollment systems directly address the potential obstacles underrepresented students face when starting (and staying in) school.

“Broadly, students who had ambivalent or negative K-12 experiences are susceptible to quick matriculation at for-profits,” tweeted Cottom.

In turn, these institutions more often than not “capture, commodify, and entrench social inequalities,” Cottom notes in her book.

“When you are born to an upper social class in the United States, you have to work hard not to go to college,” Cottom writes in Lower Ed. “When you are born poor, you have to work quite hard for college to be a real option.”

View a full chat transcript and learn more about #NACACreads.

Admitted writer/editor Mary Stegmeir welcomes additional comments and story ideas at mstegmeir@nacacnet.org.

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