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VCU Professor's New Book Offers a Hard Look at Inequality and For-Profit Universities

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Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the 1980s, Tressie McMillan Cottom expected to attend college. But she didn’t know much about the options in higher education.

Her high-school classmates talked about the University of North Carolina, but Cottom says she didn’t recognize the difference between the state’s flagship school and other state-funded schools. Her parents went to historically black universities, so Cottom followed suit.

“I knew Harvard was the best, but anything outside of that — I did not have a sense that going to the University of North Carolina was different from North Carolina State or was different from North Carolina Central,” she says. “I didn’t have a sense at all about what a prestige hierarchy was.”

Before graduating from North Carolina Central University, Cottom left to work as a recruiter at two for-profit colleges, including the now-shuttered ITT Technical Institute. She discovered many of the same disconnects among students, because they didn’t have the experience afforded wealthier students from highly educated families.

Many students didn’t even know that their schools — today exemplified by Everest University, Strayer University and the University of Phoenix — were different from traditional colleges and universities until they wound up in debt and with untransferrable academic credits. Today, about 2 million students, with veterans and black people heavily represented, attend for-profit schools.

An assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University since 2015, Cottom tells their stories in her first book, “Lower Ed: the Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy,” coming out this week.

Style: Do you think there’s a benefit to for-profit colleges?

Cottom: I tried really hard to see what social function they serve. The best I could come up with was that the minor good it serves — and it does help a minority of people that couldn’t get a degree any other way — was more true in 1994 than it was in 2015. You can now get a degree online from a traditional university in ways that you couldn’t 15 years ago. But even those few people that are helped now aren’t worth the cost of everybody else.

The first time I came across the negative side of for-profit colleges was when veterans were coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and they were using the new G.I. Bill to enroll and were winding up in debt.

[In 2008], for-profit colleges waged the [legal] argument that you’re discriminating against veterans. You’re shutting down an option for them to get a degree. That was literally how they became legitimate in many ways. And so, [for-profit schools] have known a long time how significant veteran students and veteran money is to them. How deeply embedded they are in [Veterans Affairs] is one of the shameful open secrets in higher education and social policy. Veterans deserve more and better than that.

One thing that struck me in your book was that at the technical college, recruiters weren’t admitting students so much as closing on them, like the salesmen in “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

At ITT, we had to reel them in. Almost immediately, I started going, “Oh, this is sales.” Everything about the structure: the way you were supposed to talk to people, the number of people you had to talk to each day. We had to talk to 75 people every day. We didn’t have that mentality at the beauty school.

How do the big for-profit universities like the University of Phoenix and Strayer University compare with others that are smaller? Are they different from one another?

There’s not much difference. What they say in their financial documents for investors — all of the big names — is that: “We don’t compete with other for-profit colleges. We compete with the labor market and the military.” So, they even say that, “No, we’re not different from each other.”

How does Trump University compare?

[At Trump University], there were never any classes. What there were were sales seminars. There was a curriculum, but it was based on selling them these real estate books. So, I say that Trump University was more like a timeshare company. It’s timeshare sales with the brand “university” slapped on it so people wouldn’t think critically about it.

What’s the difference between the students at VCU and the students you encountered at for-profit universities?

Because we’re a very diverse school, and because of the overrepresentation of African-American students in for-profits, I’ve had several students come to me after class and tell me they came from a for-profit. I asked [one student] how her transfer experience was, and she explains how many credit hours she lost, how demoralizing it was.

So, VCU students get in their gut what I do for my work. They understand what inequality is and how hard the choices are. Usually the difference is they had family support somewhere along the way. Even if it wasn’t financial support. Having that family support makes such a significant difference between if they end up here with us or at Everest. S

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