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Are For-Profit Colleges the Answer for Black Students?

Black students are flocking to for-profit colleges at record rates -- but at what cost?

Photo Credit: pkchai |


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Not all college educations are created equal. And as long as a university’s prestige has been associated with its exclusivity, the rungs of higher education have been racially stratified. Nowhere is this reality more clear than today, when the for-profit college giant the University of Phoenix, is graduating the most college graduates of color in the nation.

The fact, stunning as it is, reflects the changing landscape of higher education, where black, Latino and Native American students may be going to college in ever higher numbers, but are increasingly enrolling in an industry that’s come under harsh scrutiny for its business practices.

The for-profit schools of yore were once the sole domain of aspiring hairdressers and truck drivers and typists, people looking primarily for vocational training. Today, for-profit schools have muscled their way into the higher education landscape to serve a great many more education needs at a staggering rate. Folks looking to pick up a college degree, a master’s, even a doctorate, can do so from for-profit colleges.

The University of Phoenix opened its doors just under 50 years ago in 1976, but today it’s the largest institution of higher education in the nation. And despite federal regulations which have dampened enrollment numbers in the last year, it remains the top producer of African-American and combined student of color baccalaureates in the nation. In the 2010-2011 school year 5,393 students of color received college degrees from just the online division of the University of Phoenix, and 3,124 of those went to black students, according to a report by Victor Borden for “Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.”

The second top producer of black baccalaureates for the 2010-2011 year was a for-profit university too—Ashford University graduated 2,124 African Americans in the same year, an increase of 84 percent since just the previous year. Those sorts of staggering gains for students of color in the for-profit industry have become the new normal in the world of higher education. In fact, when it comes to the four-year for-profit industry, black students have formed the backbone of the industry’s growth. Between just 2004 and 2010, black enrollment in four-year for-profit schools jumped a whopping 264 percent, at a rate which dwarfs black students’ 24 percent growth in enrollment in four-year public colleges during the same time period.

It wasn’t always this way. The for-profit industry’s growth has been made possible because of the confluence of several factors. With the changing economy a college degree today is the social and practical equivalent of a high school degree a couple decades ago; it’s all but a prerequisite for joining and staying in the middle class. (And the labor market for college graduates is not exactly flourishing today, either.) The low-income students, veterans, moms and students of color who are the bulk of the for-profit industry’s target market are not immune to those sorts of cultural and economic pressures. Quite the opposite.

And for black people in particular who are looking to enter or move up in the workforce, said Tressie McMillan Cottom, a PhD student in Emory University’s sociology department, “having a credential tends to mean more than it means for other people.” Bosses’ implicit biases are powerful ( PDF), and even mean that when bosses try to infer an applicant’s social background based on their name, those thought to be black are less likely to get called for interviews than people with white-sounding names. Bosses, it turns out, are more inclined to follow up with Emilys than they are with Lakishas ( PDF).