Not all college educations are created equal. And as long as a university’s prestige has been associated with its exclusivity, the rungs of higher education have been racially stratified. Nowhere is this reality more clear than today, when the for-profit college giant the University of Phoenix, is graduating the most college graduates of color in the nation.
The fact, stunning as it is, reflects the changing landscape of higher education, where black, Latino and Native American students may be going to college in ever higher numbers, but are increasingly enrolling in an industry that’s come under harsh scrutiny for its business practices.
The for-profit schools of yore were once the sole domain of aspiring hairdressers and truck drivers and typists, people looking primarily for vocational training. Today, for-profit schools have muscled their way into the higher education landscape to serve a great many more education needs at a staggering rate. Folks looking to pick up a college degree, a master’s, even a doctorate, can do so from for-profit colleges.
The University of Phoenix opened its doors just under 50 years ago in 1976, but today it’s the largest institution of higher education in the nation. And despite federal regulations which have dampened enrollment numbers in the last year, it remains the top producer of African-American and combined student of color baccalaureates in the nation. In the 2010-2011 school year 5,393 students of color received college degrees from just the online division of the University of Phoenix, and 3,124 of those went to black students, according to a report by Victor Borden for “Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.”
The second top producer of black baccalaureates for the 2010-2011 year was a for-profit university too—Ashford University graduated 2,124 African Americans in the same year, an increase of 84 percent since just the previous year. Those sorts of staggering gains for students of color in the for-profit industry have become the new normal in the world of higher education. In fact, when it comes to the four-year for-profit industry, black students have formed the backbone of the industry’s growth. Between just 2004 and 2010, black enrollment in four-year for-profit schools jumped a whopping 264 percent, at a rate which dwarfs black students’ 24 percent growth in enrollment in four-year public colleges during the same time period.
It wasn’t always this way. The for-profit industry’s growth has been made possible because of the confluence of several factors. With the changing economy a college degree today is the social and practical equivalent of a high school degree a couple decades ago; it’s all but a prerequisite for joining and staying in the middle class. (And the labor market for college graduates is not exactly flourishing today, either.) The low-income students, veterans, moms and students of color who are the bulk of the for-profit industry’s target market are not immune to those sorts of cultural and economic pressures. Quite the opposite.
And for black people in particular who are looking to enter or move up in the workforce, said Tressie McMillan Cottom, a PhD student in Emory University’s sociology department, “having a credential tends to mean more than it means for other people.” Bosses’ implicit biases are powerful (PDF), and even mean that when bosses try to infer an applicant’s social background based on their name, those thought to be black are less likely to get called for interviews than people with white-sounding names. Bosses, it turns out, are more inclined to follow up with Emilys than they are with Lakishas (PDF).
“What a credential does for people who aren’t going to have the benefit of that social capital is help people get over the initial hurdle, which for black people is pretty significant,” Cottom said.
What’s more, state and federal funding for public institutions of higher education has declined in recent years even as the demand for higher education has increased. These days, a growing number of public community colleges and state schools are overflowing with students but starved for cash to serve them.
It could be, said Borden, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University and the author of “Diverse: Issues in Higher Education“‘s annual study, for-profit schools “provide opportunity for people who might not have gone elsewhere.” Indeed, students at for-profit schools are much more likely to come from low-income families or be first-generation college students. They’re much more likely to be black and female and older than the typical college student. They’re much more likely to have to juggle work and family responsibilities alongside with their education aspirations. According to federal education statistics, 65 percent of students at for-profit schools are female, compared to 55 percent of four-year public colleges. And while black students are between 10 and 13 percent of the students at two and four-year public colleges, they’re 22 percent of for-profit colleges.
Traditional higher education is not typically set up to meet the needs and lifestyles of moms and dads and people who have to work night shifts and a few jobs while they complete their degrees, said Sylvia Hurtado, a professor of education at UCLA.
“There’s only a few institutions that have begun to provide what I would call a more flexible form of delivery that students can mesh with their work lives,” Hurtado said. “So students are taking up higher education as it fits into their lives.”
But that’s not all. In the 1990s, too, federal regulations eased up on for-profit colleges, and starting with the first Bush administration, for-profit schools were allowed to tap into federal loans and grants. (Today the industry is heavily publicly subsidized. More than 25 percent of the industry’s roughly 3,200 schools receive a whopping 85 percent of their revenue from their students’ federal aid. The Apollo Group, which owns the University of Phoenix, raked in 86 percent of its 2008 revenue from government dollars, the AP reported.) That access, combined with the savvy marketing of for-profit schools—what else, besides car insurance ads, do you see in between segments of Jerry Springer and Judge Judy?—mean that for-profit schools have been able to gather up a segment of the U.S. population that’s hungry to advance itself in the labor market, but has been otherwise excluded from traditional avenues of higher education.
While the for-profit behemoths like DeVry University and the Apollo Group are just the “mega players” in an industry that’s still predominantly made up of family-run career colleges, the largest for-profit schools are publicly traded corporations whose executives are paid salaries in the tens of millions of dollars. They are, at their core, businesses selling a product. The genius, and—for those still attached to a traditional idea of higher education—the rub, of the for-profit industry is that it’s simply responding to the demands of consumers.
It amounts to the perfect storm, said Cottom. “We have unequal K through 12 schools that haven’t prepared everyone equally for college—and [black students] are more likely to have attended those schools, and then here we are with all this aspiration in a new, changing economic landscape and you have traditional schools not responding to those needs. And on top of that, we incentivize for-profit schools at the federal level to serve those very people,” she said.
And yet, at what cost? For-profit school degrees cost on average three to four times what students would pay for equivalent degrees at community colleges and public universities. The for-profit industry has come under scrutiny by members of Congress and the Obama administration for sucking up students’ federal aid and grants and often selling them classes whose credits are nontransferrable, in programs which are unaccredited. Meanwhile, even though for-profit school students are just around 10 percent of the higher education student population, they take out more than a quarter of the nation’s federal student aid, and make up 43 percent of those who default on their loans.
And all the while, despite a recent blip, the for-profit industry’s growth is monumental. The free market may not be worthy of solving the nation’s higher education needs. But it sure is going to try.