In 2015, I spoke with Janet, a middle-class woman in her mid-thirties who was enrolled in an on-campus doctoral program and who, despite carrying a six-figure federal student debt load, was looking into her private loan options. I asked Janet why she continued at the for-profit school she was attending knowing the cost was more than she could afford to pay. Janet looked at me in a way that could only be described as her thinking I was completely crazy. “Education is an investment,” she said.
In my book, Lower Ed, I argue that the best way to understand the expansion of for-profit colleges is through inequalities and changes in work. The latter makes going to college the only practical choice for obtaining a good job. The former constrains where a person can go to college and determines not only one’s risk to pay for it but also how well that risk pays off. Decisions that some of us find perplexing can seem quite sensible to no small number of people who are looking to survive and thrive in the new economy. From “call now” to enrollment to maxing out on federal aid, in my research I explored the thinking, rationales, and processes at play when people—including smart, savvy students like Janet—decide to attend a for-profit college.
Critics of neoliberalism fairly point out that in the new economy, corporate responsibility continues to shift exposure to risk onto workers and families. As other capital markets dry up, the interests held in the public trust become drinking holes in the desert to the investment class. But neoliberalism predates the start of the Wall Street era of higher education. More specifically, the rise of the finance class as an elite interest group with a cohesive ideology—what many simply dub “financialization”—not only made this transformation right but also ordered how it would take place: shareholder organizations, subsidiaries, and capital investment. Social scientists have pegged financialization to the decline of union power, since financialization is mostly unchecked by a labor voice. It is instructive to note that faculty at for-profit colleges are not unionized, as are most faculty in traditional higher education. Indeed, in marketing and financial-advisement documents, the lack of unionization is frequently touted as evidence that the sector is a viable investment.
Unchecked financialization and challenges to labor rights have happened across every sector of social life, and the political choices and dynamics previously discussed have aided and abetted the expansion of risky education credentials. Simultaneously, these same conditions produced the pulling apart of “good” and “bad” labor markets, and such job polarization produced a set of competitive pressures at the top and in the middle. Economists, education researchers, and marketers are blithely calling these competitive pressures “consumer demand,” an essentially neutered designation. This label strips these processes of their political conditions, making them seem like natural and unavoidable choices made by individuals. The fallacy that the swift rise of for-profit colleges is simply the result of consumer demand—as if demand isn’t shaped by the aforementioned forces—makes critiquing the privatization of higher education seem unnatural. This framing poisons the well from which good social inquiry emerges, making polemics of policy and turning empirical research into prescription and culture wars.
That is the big picture, but I’ll paint a smaller one to reveal the detail. The appeal of for-profit education to financiers is clear. At the most superficial level, it is also apparent how so-called flexible degree programs might appeal to workers who cannot afford the opportunity costs of exiting the labor market in order to get the credentials they need to stay competitive. Still, for-profit colleges wind up appealing to a wide range of potential students. These prospects are often compared to those in community colleges because most of the current for-profit credentials have historically been sub-baccalaureate degrees and certificates, similar to those that community colleges confer. Yet, the fastest growing subsector of for-profit colleges isn’t in lower-level degrees but in bachelor’s, graduate, and professional degrees. How, then, do for-profit colleges manage to appeal successfully to GED holders and traditionally educated master’s students alike? Their model of recruitment and enrollment maximizes something similarly valuable across diverse groups: time. Time has become the commodity being traded for institutional prestige.
In 2012 and 2013, I enrolled in nine for-profit colleges in a city where there is no shortage of higher education options. According to one city document, Atlanta, Georgia, has one of the densest clusters of higher education institutions in the country. It also has one of the most robust systems of public, community, and historically black colleges. These colleges are known for enrolling the kinds of students that are increasingly enrolling in for-profit colleges. If you go to a for-profit college in Atlanta, Georgia, it is not for want of traditional college options. I called or contacted each of the nine institutions (a mix chosen to represent the sector’s diversity) as any prospective student would. And then I leaned out of the process, letting the enrollment counselors and organizational steps guide me rather than actively trying to shape the processes to suit my needs and tastes. The point was to behave as similar to the likely prospective student as possible. I could not change who or what I was—namely, a middle-class, African American doctoral student. But I could choose not to act on who I was, which would effectively throw up roadblocks in a process that had presumably not been designed for the likes of me.
Perhaps nothing about the for-profit college enrollment process is more distinct than how fast it is. Studying this phenomenon, researchers William G. Tierney and Guilbert C. Hentschke note that “students generally are admitted the day they apply or make their enrollment deposit.” I found this to be true as I enrolled in nine distinct for-profit colleges. The customer service ethos that researchers commonly associate with for-profit schools is thought to maximize a prospective student’s most precious commodity—time. The typical time from the first point of contact to the first possible day I could start class was a little more than eighteen days. At five different schools, an enrollment counselor said that if I showed up for the rest of my appointments like I had for the campus tour, there was no reason that I could not start courses at the next available start date. The process is also fast because there are few bureaucratic hand-off points as students negotiate various institutional offices. At each of the nine colleges, I had a single point of contact: the enrollment officer (EO). In six cases, the EO was the same person with whom I spoke during the first contact on the telephone. The only other suggested interaction was with a financial aid counselor with whom I would meet after completing the enrollment paperwork.
Enrolling in a for-profit college requires just two steps. First, a student must make first contact with the institution. This could be making a phone call, completing an online information form, or responding to an online solicitation. After the first contact is made, the first interaction between the EO and the student is a telephone conversation. The EO guides the conversation using mostly closed-ended questions, similar to selling techniques that manufacture consent. The aim of the EO is to gain consent from the student to take a tour of the campus. Once a campus tour is scheduled, the second step of the process commences. The campus tour includes an informational interview wherein the EO gathers additional contact information for the student, and often for family and friends, and prompts the prospect for vignettes that describe their career aspirations.
There is an information sheet to complete at each school, none longer than two pages. It includes contact information and four to six questions about aspirations, work experience, and interests. This is the only document introduced throughout the whole process that is comparable to a traditional college application. Next, the EO guides the student through the campus facility and highlights features that will help the student attain their career goals. Once the tour concludes, the student is led back to an interview room for a discussion on the specifics of the next available start date, degree programs available, and tuition. Then the EO presents an enrollment agreement. The agreement is similar to the terms and conditions riders common to purchasing a car or a time-share property. All of the enrollment agreements require an enrollment fee of approximately $45. The fee could be paid by cash, check, or credit card. At two of the colleges I toured, I was offered an installment plan with an initial payment as low as $5.
Enrolling in a variety of for-profit colleges revealed the breadth, depth, and diversity of the enrollment process well before I had any concept of the many forces and structures influencing it. The exercise also shows how students can be demographically different yet have similar needs, but for different reasons. For poorer or lower-status students, the enrollment process works because it spackles over the gaps in cultural capital needed to navigate the traditional college admissions process. For higher-status students, the same enrollment process works because of what Arlie Hochschild coined “the time bind,” a conundrum that impacts all but the wealthiest. The time bind refers to the blurring of the lines between home and work, when the latter never really ends. As competition for work increases, the blurring intensifies and makes “flexibility” more than a choice; it becomes imperative in order to manage multiple competitive pressures.
The commonalities of the for-profit college enrollment process are not embedded in the connections between institutions. They are rooted in the shared social conditions of groups that do not have those institutional connections. They are not drawing from secondary schools, formal or informal college preparatory programs, civic or social groups. Essentially, for-profit colleges are not drawing from institutional connections that are different from those tapped by traditional universities. They operate in response to the reality that millions of prospective students exist outside the social machinery that delivers people to college. Elite students are generally born with connections to institutions, including boarding schools, social clubs, and peer groups—arrangements that provide links and implicit knowledge that admissions officers at elite colleges reward. Campus visitors to elite universities have described a “kinship among people in the waiting room.” Their children had attended the same high schools, they summered together, and they had run into each other on unrequired, informal college tours at similarly prestigious campuses. These “typical students” were the preferred fuel for the “college’s organizational machinery.”
Less-selective institutions also have typical students. These two- and four-year schools tend to have few admissions requirements. Most have histories as land-grant colleges and junior colleges with “open door” missions. However, it isn’t as clear that the typical students at less-selective institutions are the organizational machinery’s preferred fuel. Like for-profit colleges, community colleges in particular “serve as the point of entry for students who wouldn’t otherwise participate in postsecondary education.” The “point of entry” does not extend to the actual process of gaining admission at a less-selective college. An online survey of every branch of a community college in Atlanta found that all of them encouraged students to enroll online. One of the city’s largest community colleges boasted a graphic flowchart for admissions. The first three steps were to “let us get to know you” by 1) completing an online contact form; 2) submitting an online application at an external state university website; and 3) acquiring an institutional identification number and uploading your documents. Listed after the three steps were four additional steps: 1) submit final documents; 2) verify tuition classification; 3) set an institutional email password; and 4) complete orientation. There is an additional sidebar reminding students to complete their federal financial aid forms by following the directions available at the institution’s financial aid webpage.
It took nine clicks to find detailed information about speaking with an admissions counselor. It also required a fair amount of institutional translation. For example, the admissions page with the two sets of multiple application steps is called Admissions. But the eventual name and webpage for the office that administers admissions assistance is called Advising. Additionally, advising for first-time students is only conducted “at New Student Orientation with a faculty member.” The financial aid office is open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with extended hours through 7 p.m. on Wednesday. The advising office’s hours are similar, with its extended day held on Tuesday. The college had three application deadlines and three fixed new-student class start times.
The admissions process at both elite and non-elite institutions is most efficient when prospective students have middle-class social resources. Middle-class children, no matter their race, are socialized to assume that bureaucratic systems should respond to their needs. Their parents give them the language skills, confidence, and support to engage their teachers as equals. As my experience navigating the website of an open-admissions college can attest, verbal and written skills are grist for the bureaucratic mill (e.g., completing online forms, sending emails). When students cut from this cloth manage to negotiate competing deadlines, personalities, and norms among the multiple offices they must navigate to complete the traditional college admissions process, they are rewarded with fewer obstacles. The bureaucracy responds favorably to the social resources that cultivated those skills in the first place.
In contrast, the enrollment process I experienced at for-profit institutions never once assumed that I had been cultivated to navigate a complex bureaucracy. Neither was it assumed that I should develop such acuity. The phone call was short, about fourteen minutes. Unless I presented an objection to scheduling a campus tour, the enrollment officers guided the direction of the telephone conversation. The same was true of the campus tour. I had only to answer the enrollment officers’ questions to move through the process successfully. Additionally, the information sheets I filled out upon my arrival were brief, requiring little writing. Perhaps most interesting is that an organizational form predicated on its technological innovation did not require an online application to initiate or complete the enrollment process.
I need never even revisit a bureaucracy with which I presumably had experience: my high school. The enrollment officers would navigate ordering my transcripts for me. Indeed, the enrollment process was noticeably halted only when I attempted to control its trajectory. At one appointment, I mildly insisted on knowing the price of tuition at the start of the campus tour. I mentioned that price was important to me. The enrollment officer said that I was “smart to keep an eye on my budget” but declined to give me the price. She took the opportunity to reiterate that the institution she represented offered aid and grants and that she would “break that all down” for me later. When I asked again, more directly, the enrollment officer slid a sheet with the tuition amount into a folder and gave it to me. She was noticeably upset about the disruption. She relaxed once I thanked her and placed the folder in my bag without opening it.
Tressie McMillan Cottom is a contributing editor at Dissent. Copyright © 2016 by Tressie McMillan Cottom. This is an edited excerpt from Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.