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How For-Profit Colleges Sell 'Risky Education' To The Most Vulnerable

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For-profit colleges have faced federal and state investigations in recent years for their aggressive recruiting tactics — accusations that come as no surprise to author Tressie McMillan Cottom.

Cottom worked as an enrollment officer at two different for-profit colleges, but quit because she felt uncomfortable selling students an education they couldn't afford. Her new book, Lower Ed, argues that for-profit colleges exploit racial, gender and economic inequality.

Cottom tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that for-profit institutions tend to focus their recruiting on students who qualify for the maximum amount of student aid. "That happens to be the poorest among us," she says. "And because of how our society is set up, the poorest among us tend to be women and people of color."

Tressie McMillan Cottom has a Ph.D. in sociology and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.
/ The New Press
The New Press
Tressie McMillan Cottom has a Ph.D. in sociology and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Though for-profit colleges hold out the promise of a better future, Cottom notes that the credentials they offer tend to be 30 to 40 percent more expensive than the same credentials from a nonprofit public institution. What's more, she says, students at for-profit institutions often drop out before completing their degree, which means many students are left mired in debt and with credits that are not easily transferable.

"The system that we've come to rely on to increase access to higher education to the most vulnerable among us really only compounds their poverty and their risk factors," Cottom says. "That's the exact opposite of what higher education is supposed to do."

Interview Highlights

On what the enrollment process was like when she was working at a for-profit college

The process starts with the first phone call. So when you see those ads that say, "Call 1-800 such-and-such to change your life today," when you call that number someone like me would answer on the other line. And the first thing we would do was to try to get as much of your contact information and your demographic information as possible, because we needed to know how to find you.

Once I had gotten that information, my next goal was to get you to visit the school as quickly as possible, and I mean in the next 24 to 48 hours. ... To sign up for school, they had to physically sign what we called an enrollment agreement. So having them physically there removed all of the barriers to them not signing up. ...

Once that decision [to enroll] had been made, all of your other decisions were made for you. ... We ordered all of your books; we handled all of your financial aid paperwork for you; we ordered your high school transcripts for you. The process from the point of contacting someone like me at the technical school to the first time you could show up for the first day of class was, on average, about two weeks. It's a pretty rapid process and part of making the process rapid was to have someone like me holding your hand throughout.

On why for-profit colleges are more expensive than nonprofit colleges

The only way they have to generate revenue or profit is from tuition. So if you're a financialized organization or a corporate shareholder-owned, for-profit college that relies on tuition growth to generate your profit, the only way you can do that is to keep increasing costs. So they tend to peg the tuition costs to the fully allowable amount that students are allowed to borrow from the federal student aid program.

On when she started to feel conflicted about working at a for-profit college

When I saw relatively poor and low-income students deciding to take on both [federal] student loan debt and private student loan debt and inviting in their family members to cosign on additional loans — so sort of spreading their risk around into their social networks so that they could afford this education — I really started to ask whether they could ever afford it at all. Should they have been there if they had to go through all of those steps to afford the tuition?

On what happens when students drop out of a for-profit college

... for-profit colleges really aren't set up to transform these students' lives in the way that we think higher education is supposed to do.

Debt has made our choice of higher education options far riskier than they were 20 or 30 years ago. And in the for-profit college sector that's especially acute because those students are more likely to be poor or low-income or sort of dancing along the line of poverty. ... Because of that, for-profit colleges really aren't set up to transform these students' lives in the way that we think higher education is supposed to do. ...

What we see in the for-profit college sector is those students drop out with more debt, making it harder for them to return, especially if they have problems repaying that debt while they are out of school. ... When they do return, it is easier for them to return to another for-profit college because those credits earned ... are not as portable. So in many ways what happens is that the students in the for-profit college sector are really cycling in and out and through the for-profit college sector, which we know is more expensive, where they will incur more debt and where they have lower outcomes when they graduate, if they ever do graduate.

On how for-profit colleges exploit the belief that all education is good education

Education is foundational to the narrative of social mobility in this country. ... Probably nothing is more American than the idea that, through hard work, everybody can separate themselves from the circumstances of their birth; through achievement and hard work we can all get ahead. ...

People actually believe in that — even poor people who have very little reason to believe in it because they've gone to relatively poor K-12 schools and had negative experiences. Over and over again, I heard people espousing their faith in education. ...

The problem is when our education gospel doesn't make a distinction between good education and risky education. And here in that gap is where for-profit colleges flourish. ... If we say there's no such thing as "bad school," it makes a job like the one I once had at the technical school much easier to do. It is easy [to] sell people when they ... [don't] understand the idea that school could actually leave them worse off than when they started.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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