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College For All, Profit For Some

The ideal of "College for All”—usually interpreted as meaning the acquisition of a four-year degree—is every bit as noble as it is unattainable, at least judging from actual graduation rates. It is within this tension that for-profit colleges wish to live—a kind of pseudo knight in shining armor riding gallantly into the battle for equal opportunity. But too many for-profit colleges (a.k.a., career colleges) are not solving educational issues. Rather, they are perpetuating inequalities and obscuring the fact that what is preached (e.g., “College for All”) has nothing to do with what gets achieved.

Many have pointed out that, by enshrining a path so few end up traveling (to say nothing of completing), we may be doing a great disservice to our youth. This argument is loud and clear; what may not be totally obvious is the variegated ways in which this constitutes a disservice. By idealizing the B.A./B.S. path, not only are we discouraging young people from exploring equally valid post high-school options, but we inadvertently may have also made them more vulnerable to the allure of disreputable for-profit colleges and/or encouraged for-profits to exploit this vulnerability.

As a matter of fact, one consequence (unintended, I am sure) of the “College for All” ideal may have been to widen the niche for for-profit career colleges. I am hardly the first to point out that the worst career colleges sell fake dreams by arm-twisting and sweet-talking potential students into taking out unsustainable—often federally-subsidized—loans for products of uncertain value. For-profit colleges did not create this dream. We did. They have only done what we would expect a for-profit entity to do: Exploit it.

According to Pathways to Prosperity, a recent Harvard Graduate School of Education report, even though the notion still prevails that “in 21st century America education beyond high school is the passport to the American Dream," the “College for All” formula is being reexamined. In fact, according to the report, “only about half of those enrolling in a four-year college program attain a bachelor’s degree after six years." The situation is even more dire for minorities, with “only 30 percent of African-Americans and fewer than 20 percent of Latinos in their mid-20s having an associate’s degree or higher. Indeed, one wonders if the very word “college”—as in “career college”—isn’t morphing into a catchall for all postsecondary training and education, of whatever duration and quality, simply because the four-year trip isn’t working for so many.

A 2004 report on perceptions on higher education also reveals that, although public attitudes about college attendance remain generally positive, they have become more troubled in the sense that some social groups, such as African Americans and Hispanics, are increasingly concerned about access. At the same time, this report notes that minority parents, more so than their white counterparts, attach a great deal of importance to higher education as a path for their children’s success. This tells us that disadvantaged minorities tend to embrace the “College for All” dream more intensely than the general public, while also fearing that—at least for them and their children—it remains out of reach.

Enter unscrupulous for-profit colleges with an easy, attractively packaged solution (but without the fine print warning you of high costs and low success rates). With enrollments that are half low-income students and 37 percent minority, these for-profit colleges have been described as subprime-loan purveyors who prey on vulnerable youth by “peddling access to the American Dream, but delivering little more than crippling debt” (see here).  

When fewer than one in three US students manage to graduate from a four-year college—and a significant percentage of those who do find themselves unemployed or underemployed, without the necessary skills to compete in the modern jobs market—it’s hard not to ask ourselves how much and what kind of post-secondary education is really necessary and for what. According to “Pathways to Prosperity," one answer rests with high-quality, 21st century career-and-technical education (CTE).

The truth is not everybody can, should, or needs to pursue a four-year college education. CTE, apprenticeship programs, two-year community colleges, on-the-job training—there are many good options, some of them quite rewarding. By not presenting young people with accurate and diverse career pathways, we sabotage their ability to make fully informed decisions. Simultaneously, when the dominant rhetoric becomes so overly narrow that reality is left behind, we make it easier for those who peddle unreal, unworkable solutions to prey upon and profit from our aspirations. The two can be addressed by diversifying our messages to young people about the options available. As in many things, in diversity there is power.

Issues Areas


This is an excellent statement. There is a lack of competent people with technical skills. However, an expert carpenter told me that even though he makes a good living, he is subject to snobbery by people in bureaucratic jobs.Some years ago when I was teaching executives at Ford, the CEO of a large dealership reported that it was hard to find a good mechanic while applicants lined up for a job in accounting, even though the mechanic's job had double the salary. Part of the problem is lack of respect for these technical jobs.

That's a fine and honestly-expressed policy notion that lies unstated behind much of the re-regulation of the sector. But the for-profit colleges are simply responding to the higher education policy that has been in place for the last 50 years. Even still the president is calling for more access. This is what access looks like. (And by the way it looks exactly the same at state-subsidized community colleges.) It is fine to acknowledge that the pendulum has swung too far, but is it necessary to demonize for-profit schools at the same time? Have an honest discussion about the costs and benefits of higher ed policy and then pursue a common direction that governs all types of institutions.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan testifies before Congress, warning the nation that over 80 percent of schools will fail the No Child Left Behind law. Yet the American Federation of Teachers is worried about postsecondary access, the promise of a four-year degree, and the gap between what private sector colleges and universities say and do? Perhaps if Esther Quintero would do a little homework herself she’d find that over 50 percent of PSCU awards are certificates, not four year degrees. PSCUs provide a valuable entry point to a vast array of jobs and careers. Our programs are also the first academic success that many students have ever enjoyed. Too often, PSCU education must fill in the blanks rather than building on the foundations students have attained in high school. Is it an epiphany that not everyone needs or wants a four-year college degree? Hardly. But before casting the next stone, visit one of our schools and talk to our students. About high school, college, and the value of gaining a postsecondary credential. It might be a learning experience.

Unfortunately, employers help perpetuate this idea by requiring degrees for all kinds of jobs, many of which really don't need them. Also, the only thing a degree can absolutely say with certainty is that someone spent a certain amount of time and money at a particular place (and nothing more). This is no guarantee of fitness for employment, merely a way to thin out a stack of resumes. In the process, education is devalued, rendering it little more than an expensive union card.


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