Monday, March 18, 2013


“Not a School for People Like Them”

Rising star of the Twitterverse Tressie McMillan Cottom has a must-read post about her observations as a sociologist and former admissions staffer at a for-profit college.  It’s about the interaction between the prestige hierarchy of higher education, economic class, and self-image.

The money quote:

When I teach my undergraduates at my elite, private school they all recognize the for-profit college ads I play to introduce the idea of higher education stratification. I ask them why they did not apply to Everest or Strayer when they were applying to college. They tell me that it’s not a school for people like them.

“Not a school for people like them.”  

When I worked at DeVry, we had conversations like these all the time.  DeVry used to blanket every cheesy daytime talk show with ads -- Ricki Lake was a favorite -- and its student body reflected that.  Whenever a big muckety-muck from Home Office came to campus to exhort us to higher success rates, we usually responded by asking that the advertising be redirected to places where likelier-to-succeed students might see them.  The usual answer was that the ads worked, and as long as they worked, there wasn’t much point in redirecting them.

This strikes me as the flip side of the “undermatching” thesis addressed yesterday.  At some level, there’s a broad -- and I would say, badly dysfunctional -- understanding that certain kinds of colleges are for certain kinds of people.  That’s not restricted to the relatively unobjectionable cases of women’s colleges or colleges with specific religious affiliations, where the identities are worn on the sleeve.  The larger issue is the unwritten identity that each college assumes.

Economic and cultural capital are major components of those unwritten identities.  Those overlap with race, but they have force of their own.  The students who know the difference between engineers and engineering techs go to Purdue or MIT; the ones who don’t, go to DeVry.  

The for-profits are acutely aware of that sort of thing, and they organize themselves accordingly.  As Cottom puts it:

Can you imagine applying to your flagship state university by walking into the admissions office with $75 in cash? It is even difficult to do at the local community college I visited recently. And community colleges are, theoretically, designed to serve demographically similar students as those served by for-profit colleges. Waltzing in with cash money is not only a bureaucratic violation but a cultural one. It signals you do not know how “real” college works.

Exactly.  And if community colleges are serious about helping the folks who don’t come in knowing that, we could learn some lessons from the for-profits.

To my reading, Cottom puts a little too much faith in the economic cycle to explain for-profits’ success, and probably too little on the regulatory climate.  And it’s reasonable to think that the for-profits should be even more nervous about MOOCs than the rest of us.  But those are quibbles.  Go and read her piece.  Give it some thought.  She’s on to something, and we’d best figure out just what it is.

Sounds to me like public colleges need to be sure the first people Possible Students meet should be very personable and reassuring like the for-profits sales people.

Maybe a multi-tier approach...personable reassuring First Tier person showing Possible Student around college, Second Tier person counseling and explaining how college works and what are some majors, Third Tier person advises on financial aid and other discussions P Student mentions, Fourth Tier person available for mentoring/checking in/ counseling when P Student enrolls.

First Tier gets them to thinking about attending Home CC by giving talks at HS or being available for answering questions at Home CC daily information forums;

Second Tier talks with the P Student who comes back for more information.

If P Student has questions about financial aid, Second Tier can get all or some of the information from Third Tier at that time and get the student back at a later time and personally introduce them to Third Tier person.

If P Student enrolls, Student is assigned to Fourth Tier person as a mentor. All new Students can meet their Fourth Tier persons at a CC Open House.

Four people instead of one with lots of "you are one of our kind of people" hand holding as though the P Student were a prized athlete.

Why not use the same sales techniques as for-profit or persuasive personal techniques used to recruit star high school athletes?

Why not use those techniques? Partly because they're labor (read, money) intensive. Few public higher eds that I know of have the staff to pull that off.
5:22 is right. That's FOUR people @ 25-35k (plus benefits)/year, so $150k cost to "advise and counsel" someone who may or may not wind up enrolling in the program. And how many people need to matriculate for the $$ they bring in via tuition and fees to pay for this model? Note: I'm not saying that this it shouldn't be done this way, but I understand why it's not.

In higher ed these days, the watch words are "sustainable" and "scalable," ie, how can you keep getting the same (or good enough) results with the smallest number of people doing the heavy lifting (teaching/advising/counseling, etc.) for the largest possible group of students?

For-profit institutions provide easy, low-cost access (up front, anyway) to often marginally-equipped students who are aware that they need something (and this is usually couched as a credential, not an education) in order to be competitive in the marketplace today. The fact that they do this using essentially the same tactics as a pushy used car salesman hustling to make a quota("what's it gonna take to get you to drive this degree off the lot today?") speaks volumes to what is the real benefit and value (financial aid dollars to the institution) for that student to attend.

Add to that the pressure on faculty to keep under-performing students matriculated, and you have a truly cynical business model that is built to prey upon those most vulnerable to it. I'm not saying that some of the same issues don't exist in traditional higher education, but at least in places where there are some admissions standards, established criteria for making legitimate progress toward a degree, and access to counseling and advising designed to assist the individual student and not the solely--or primarily--institution's bottom line.
The 7:24 and 5:22 comments have some good points as to why this Four Tier could be expensive. I thought of that. It is expensive to start off. So here is my proposal.

Start-up costs:
First Tier -
Diretor 70K (with benefits).
5 minute written, produced, and acted kiosk video about the college with emphasis on how student will benefit.
Work-Study students (trained well by the 70K director. Estimate how many the first semester. Say 4 @ 20 hrs a wk x $8 per hr = 36K per yr (no benefits)

Second Tier-
Director 70K
Well trained assistants 4 full time @ 35K per year = 210 K
Materials for P Student will be informational video, user friendly flow chart of enrollment process, printout of major courses of study (most colleges have these online already, but don't have a face-to-face person to talk with P Students).

Third Tier -
Use the financial aid personnel already in place. If this works well, add more as needed.

Fourth Tier -
Use Counseling personnel already in place for advising if a good advising program exists.
Well trained assistants for guiding and mentoring 2 @ 35K per yr =70K.

Total estimated start up cost for personnel 456K per year.

Write a grant to get the money or have a excellent fund raising person present the idea to a benefactor. Call this a pilot program the first two years. Keep student data and see how it does. (The First Tier Director could be responsible for this data collecting, analyzing, and reporting).

Maybe the students will matriculate and maybe they won't. AHH, but what if they do? What if the students who are expected to do poorly instead do well? Wouldn't that be stupendous?

One won't know if such a personalized touch will work until it is used and continues throughout the P students enrollment period. The Four Tier will give that personalized guided touch.

I firmly believe the key to success for the at-risk students is to have a person who establishes a relationship with the student. This person can give the student the kind of advice and interest that a parent or relative of a student who is not at-risk has. One of the differences between a bright at-risk student and a bright not at-risk student is an interested, experienced-with-college relative.

I think this proposal will level the playing field for at-risk students.

Cost is 386K, not 456K.

I was addressing Anonymous posters at 5:22 and 6:35, not 7:24.
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