Research

The Unheralded Mettle of For-Profit College Students

April 28, 2017

Linda DeAngelo, an assistant professor of higher education at the U. of Pittsburgh, is an author of a study examining students at for-profit colleges. Contrary to common stereotypes, those students generally saw their experiences as positive.

What leads more than 7 percent of the nation’s college students to enroll at for-profit institutions? Much of the discussion of higher education’ proprietary sector assumes that its member schools enroll students who are academically marginal and lack other options. That’s far too simplistic, a new study concludes.

The study’s authors are two scholars from the University of Pittsburgh: Linda DeAngelo, an assistant professor of higher education, and Molly M. McClelland, a doctoral student in administrative and policy studies there. They based their analysis on extensive interviews with 19 students who had attended two-year, for-profit colleges before enrolling in a private, four-year, urban college. The students ranged in age from 20 to 60 and were diverse in terms of their race, ethnicity, gender, and major.

The students framed their enrollment in a for-profit as having stemmed from a desire to gain confidence, reach their potential, take charge of their lives, and shed social labels associated with a lack of a college degree.

Contrary to common stereotypes, the two researchers say, their subjects generally saw their experience with a for-profit college as positive, and said little that traced their decision to enroll in it to poor academic performance in high school. Generally, they framed their enrollment in a for-profit as having stemmed from a desire to gain confidence, reach their potential, take charge of their lives, and shed social labels associated with a lack of a college degree.

In keeping with standard research protocol, the researchers name neither their subjects nor the private college where the study took place. They caution that their study’s results might have been skewed by its focus on students who were successful enough to move on to a four-year institution.

The researchers also stress that their findings should not be perceived as an endorsement of the for-profit sector, which continues to have low graduation rates and includes colleges that leave students heavily indebted and facing poor employment prospects. Nevertheless, they say, policy makers might be wise to consider how for-profit colleges can represent a path forward for people seeking to overcome obstacles and improve themselves.

The Chronicle asked Ms. DeAngelo about the study this month, which the researchers were to present Friday at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association. Following is an edited and condensed transcript of that interview.

Q. What motivated you to undertake your study?

A. There isn’t much known about for-profit students, generally, beyond just the description of them as low-income or, often, minority students — students who were low achieving in high school and had other nontraditional aspects. We had an opportunity to talk to them and find out more about who they are and how they understand their educational experience. There was a college in the Northeast that had articulation agreements with quite a few-profit institutions.

Q. Why study students in that environment?

A. Traditional institutions are going to be increasing articulation agreements with for-profits to bring students to campus. We wanted to understand those students’ trajectory in transferring and being successful. At this particular college there was a perception of these students as being marginal. They were just kind of crunched through the system rather than being seen as fully capable. We wanted to understand their experience.

Q. What were their backgrounds?

A. We had students who have had very, very hard lives, including being homeless or abused. They generally were older and had some type of significant life event that they had dealt with or are dealing with.

Q. Why had they attended for-profits?

A. They saw the for-profit as valuable. They had had few choices beyond the for-profit or a community college, and many of them spoke about choosing the for-profit because they did not feel that the community college was a good fit. They talked about the community college as being a continuation of high school — some of them referred to it as "13th grade." They also appreciated that the for-profit really worked hard in terms of block scheduling and making it work for their lives and their working full-time.

They saw the community colleges as almost offering too many choices, and a lot of barriers in terms of how classes were scheduled. They also were attracted to for-profits because of their promises of a career on the other side.

Q. Do for-profit colleges know their students better than other colleges do?

A. They understand their market, in some ways, better. Many of these students talked about their initial exposure to the for-profit being when they were in high school. The for-profit would come in and recruit, and they would remember this even though they didn’t enroll in the for-profit until much later. They developed relationships with these recruiters.

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.