The small but growing collection of academics who study how race, class, and gender issues play out in the recruiting and education of students across the for-profit-college sector may one day mark an unusual conclave of researchers that concluded here on Saturday as a watershed.
The event, "Access, Competition & For-Profit Higher Education," brought together more than a dozen professors and graduate students whose work examines such topics as whether some colleges' advertising messages are racially discriminatory and data showing that students are more likely to complete a two-year degree at a for-profit institution than at a community college. (The researcher behind that finding, David J. Harding, an associate professor of sociology and public policy the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, also found that for-profits fared worse when looking at four-year degrees.)
But more to the point, said an organizer of the event, Tressie McMillan Cottom, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Emory University, was the "buy in" from participants, who included academics in fields like law, business, economics, and education, as well as top officials at four major college companies—American Public University, Corinthian Colleges Inc., Kaplan University, and DeVry Inc.
"So much research is relationship-based," said Ms. Cottom, and the companies' participation—and their subsequent offers to be forthcoming with data about students, faculty, and even some academic practices—could bring a different kind of attention to a sector that has until now been scrutinized largely by journalists, lawyers, policy makers, and politicians.
"We are sitting on a mountain of data," said Kara VanDam, Kaplan's vice provost. She said she was eager to have other academics look at the teaching model there so they'll realize "our curriculum does not descend from on high from some weird place."
William A. Darity, a professor of public policy, economics, and African-American Studies at Duke University, said the scholarly focus is long overdue, given the sector's growth, its cost, and the high proportion of low-income and minority students who enroll at the colleges.
Enrollment at colleges in the sector nearly doubled from 2006 to 2011, said Kevin Kinser, an associate professor of educational administration and policy studies at the University at Albany, a campus of the State University of New York. He pointed to a graph showing years of steady growth, followed by a sharp incline to the right. "We have an education 'hockey stick,'" he said, referring to a famous climate-change graph showing trends toward global warming.
He also highlighted data showing that for-profit colleges are absorbing more student aid relative to student success. Measuring federal dollars per "completion" of a program, Mr. Kinser found that while the rates increased for for-profit, nonprofit, and public institutions from 2001 to 2011, the rate of increase at for-profit colleges, 142 percent, was the greatest.
"Systemic attention from academics" has been inadequate, said Mr. Darity.
But that's changing.
Already, said Ms. Cottom, "real research plans are shaping up" through organizations like the Duke University Research Network on Racial and Ethnic Inequality, one of the conference organizers. She said the network has at least 15 members interested in doing research involving for-profit higher education, though she noted their success depends on "how interested funders are and how interested journals are."
Corinthian's spokesman, Kent Jenkins, said he knew of at least one Ph.D. student who was already studying students at one of the company's California campuses and said the company was open to more.
Corrections (9/24/2012, 10:18 a.m.): The original version of this article neglected to mention one of the four major college companies at the conference: American Public University. It also misreported Kara VanDam's title at Kaplan. She is vice provost, not assistant provost. The article has been updated to reflect these corrections.