making sense of for-profit colleges: a mini-syllabus


At the Eastern Sociological Society Annual Meetings this past weekend, I had the opportunity to participate in a fantastic Author-Meets-Critics session for Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed. Lower Ed is a great book, but it’s not a complete analysis of the sector. In writing up my comments, and in the discussion during the session, I tried to think of what you would need to bring together to get that fuller picture. Here’s my brief recommended list, and how I would use them together in say a unit of a sociology of education or higher education course.


Suzanne Mettler’s Degrees of Inequality, esp. Ch 3

Mettler is a political scientist who studies, among other things, the “submerged welfare state” (how tax policy and other less overt programs have expanded in lieu of traditional welfare programs). Degrees of Inequality looks at the higher ed sector, and Chapter 3 works fantastically as a stand-alone piece on the politics that drove the for-profit sector. You could assign other chapters of the book alongside other units; e.g. Chapter 4 for public higher ed.


Joel Best & Eric Best, The Student Loan Mess, esp. Ch 4

Joel Best is a sociologist who has worked extensively in the “social problems” tradition; Eric Best is his son and a quanty researcher, making the book the result of a pretty keen intergenerational, interdisciplinary collaboration. Best & Best distinguish between different eras and classes of student loan problems, which is essential given the extent of popular discourse that conflates everything from six-figure loans for elite graduate programs and five-figure loans for unfinished for-profit certificates.

Deming et al, “The Value of Postsecondary Credentials in the Labor Market: An Experimental Study.” & Deterding & Pedulla, “Educational Authority in the ‘‘Open Door’’ Marketplace: Labor Market Consequences of For-profit, Nonprofit, and Fictional Educational Credentials.”

A pair of recent audit studies by economists and sociologists comparing callback rates for applicants with for-profit vs. public/non-profit credentials. There are severe limits to narrowing our analysis of the value of credentials to employment… but studies like this are super important for understanding how for-profit colleges (fail to) deliver on their own stated promises.


Tressie McMillan Cottom, Lower Ed.

While the above readings are great on some of the outcomes (jobs, debt), and larger political structures shaping the sector, nothing compares to sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom’s analysis of the how of the for-profit sector. Cottom’s book draws on years of working in the field, interviews with enrollment officers and students, Facebook group chats, SEC filings, and all manner of other sorts of data to 1. make sense of how students come to consider enrolling in a for-profit colleges as a reasonable plan, 2. how enrollment officers employ both excellent customer service and cruelly calculated manipulation to actually enroll those individuals, and 3. situate this analysis within the larger political economies of higher education, the labor market, and racial inequality. Assign the whole thing, it’s a fast read!

Jaime Madden, “Instructor or Customer Service Representative?: Reflections on Teaching in a For-Profit College.”

One of the big omissions from Lower Ed is the role of teachers themselves in for-profit colleges. Due, in part, to issues of non-disclosure agreements and other issues obtaining access, Cottom brackets what happens inside the for-profit classroom. This article by Madden (recommended by Cottom at the AMC session) reports on her own experiences teaching at a for-profit, physical campus of Virginia College. Sociologist Jaime Madden documents how the college pushes “professionalism” as a main grading criteria, how instructors are required to use specific textbook (and students are required to buy them, new, from the college, per an agreement with publisher Pearson), and how her own attempts to teach against the grain yielded some incredibly successful classroom discussions despite these constraints. Madden ends her essay with a reflection on how Virginia College attempted to produce a particular kind of market-oriented individual, one that evaluated their self-worth in economic terms, and assumed individual responsibility for their economic outcomes. The push for this sort of education, she notes, is not limited to for-profits; creating entrepreneurial selves is very much on the agenda of public and non-profit colleges in the current era.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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