Sharon Begley, Can’t. Just. Stop. An Investigation of Compulsions: A well-written book that argues that “mental illness” is a spectrum; none of us is “normal” but some of us are in severe distress and can benefit from particular interventions. As she explains, the discourse around impulse, addiction, and compulsion can get pretty confused, with various problems described in all three ways; some people’s behavior may be better described by one or another. Some compulsive shoppers are depressed or manic; others are anxious. I particularly liked one expert’s explanation of how our brains respond to unexpected dopamine hits: “It’s like, DUDE: UNEXPECTED HOT POCKET! KEEP DOING WHAT YOU’RE DOING UNTIL WE FIGURE OUT HOW TO MAKE IT HAPPEN AGAIN! So you keep playing.” I feel I know this expert, and that he would get along well with my son. What about compulsions? Acting on them relieves anxiety, at least for a bit, which teaches the brain that it makes sense to act on them.
Begley doesn’t like the language of “chemical imbalances” in the brain and argues that it’s more about conditioned responses in neural patterns of activity: wiring, not chemicals. Where OCD sufferers seem to have overactive responses to perceived danger, hoarders don’t get the “something is wrong” signal when non-hoarders would. Nonetheless, Begley has commendable caution about what we don’t know about brain activity yet, including differences among people. “The only safe thing to say about compulsive behaviors is that they probably involve dysfunction of the brain’s dopamine-fuled reward circuits.” I learned that a common treatment for Parkinson’s has as a known side effect in a subset of patients triggering compulsive behavior, from gambling to sex. I also learned that the story of Phineas Gage includes not just loss of decisionmaking capacity, but also a new fondness for souvenirs—frontal lobe damage made him a collector, apparently.
Tressie McMillan Cottom, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy: Cottom’s excellent new book is about for-profit colleges and credentialing, but it’s really about the collapse of the safety net and the dumping of risk on individuals. It’s also about really effective marketing techniques.
For-profit colleges became more attractive as the labor market became more uncertain and unfriendly—they even identified declining unemployment as a bigger threat to them than competition among them. “Poor labor market outcomes for their graduates (and non-graduates) is part of their business plan” (which also makes regulatory penalties for poor job placement statistucs just a cost of doing business). “If we have a shitty credentialing system, in the case of for-profit colleges, then it is likely because we have a shitty labor market.”
While traditional higher education assumed that employers would recognize the value of a college degree, and thus saw employers as partners in providing relevant job training, for-profit colleges respond to employers’ unwillingness to invest in workers at all by offering to do that—for a price. Thus, for-profit colleges depend on “acute, sustained socioeconomic inequalities,” in everything from enrollment to financing to scheduling classes to deal with constraints on students’ time. Students think, reasonably, that credentials are important to employers, and thus take on debts that (a) seem worthwhile as investments, especially as recruiters for the schools emphasize this, and (b) seem better than the alternatives, given the insecurity so many workers—especially minority women—face.
And yet, one study found that students with for-profit college credentials are only as likely to get a callback as students with high school diplomas. (Cottom says later, though, that for some employment screenings, such as automated ones, merely being able to check the box for a college degree may be of assistance.) Another way of looking at it: students at for-profit colleges “earn about as much as graduates of similar demographic backgrounds from traditional colleges, but have more bouts of unemployment and for longer periods of time.” They’re also less likely to graduate at all, and when they do, they have more debt than they would have from a public school; for-profit graduates are almost half of all student loan defaults.
Poor people, women, minorities, and single parents are disproportionately likely to enroll in for-profit colleges, in part because they make it much easier to do so than even the (far cheaper, probably better credential-wise) community colleges. Some stats: 2 million students in 2010, up from under 400,000 in 2000. One in 20 students in higher education is at a for-profit, but that’s 1 in 10 African-Americans, 1 in 14 Latinx, and 1 in 14 first-generation college students. Much of the recent growth, however, is in offering graduate degrees. On average, for-profit BA programs cost 19% more than public universities,while associate degrees and certificates cost four times more than community colleges. Over 94% of for-profit college students use federal financial aid, where their school participates (there are many small ones that don’t). Average debt for graduating seniors with loans was $29,400 in 2012, but in for-profits it was $39,950. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s all relative; most people won’t get jobs that can easily pay off those loans. Twenty-five percent of for-profit college students have a GED or other non-traditional high school certification; 16% are participating in a welfare program, while 2.6% of those in traditional colleges are.
Cottom contests the narrative that these schools are credentialing people in fields where there are labor market shortages; in health care, for example, they aren’t producing registered nurses or doctors but rather massage therapists. The model the for-profit colleges work off of is that people will need to go back to school repeatedly to combat job instability and employer demands for new skills. Also, students choose for-profit colleges because they don’t want to move away from their family obligations and want to move up where they are; Cottom points out that this hope for the use of a credential conflicts with the assumptions behind the “knowledge economy” proponents who search for the ever more flexible, able-to-move-across-the-country worker.
Here’s quite a statistic: 65 percent of students at for-profit colleges didn’t know their schools were for-profit. They generally thought of “college” as a unified entity, and were encouraged to do so by the colleges themselves, which unlike traditional colleges (pitching a unique on campus experience) touted the value of education generally. I learned about the role of the student loan refund check in funding daily life for many students, especially in for-profit schools that encourage maximum borrowing. I hadn’t thought about what Cottom calls (quoting other researchers) “education deserts”—cf. “food deserts”—postindustrial areas where for-profit colleges seem most accessible. A traditional college 40 miles away is useless if you don’t have a car that can regularly make that trip and the gas money to fuel it. I was also struck by the similarity between Cottom’s informants and the angry white folks in Strangers in Their Own Land: both believed in “following the rules,” but Cottom’s informants expected a lot less from and of following the rules, which required them to hustle just to get where others were by birth and social capital. In that context, the risk of default was not to different from the risk of catastrophe to which they were already exposed by poverty; they didn’t have homes or cars to repossess anyway. (Over 94% of black college students have student loans, compared to 69% of white students, and it turns out that the probability of default isn’t correlated to the size of the loan, but is correlated with whether people actually complete school.) Moreover, Cottom found that—at least for those seeking advanced degrees—the existence of debt was proof of the validity of the investment and proof that the school was “real.”
Marketing at these schools is designed to overcome the obstacles that their target students see, making students’ choices feel rational. At a technical college catering mostly to white men who already had jobs, Cottom says, they sold “insurance—policies against unemployment, career stagnation, and and volatile job markets.” At a beauty school, they focused on barriers like poverty and childcare, repeatedly returning to prospects who often had trouble showing up at scheduled appointments and filling out paperwork. The meaning of being poor and black and a mother made the beauty school “a rational choice in the way that dousing your burning leg with cold water is rational: it helps but you are still scarred.”
Having a car and being able to reach the school were two of the biggest obstacles for prospective students at the beauty school. Other problems were trouble with families that prevented easy filling out of the FAFSA; some families were in disarray and couldn’t find the relevant documents (e.g., birth certificate) while some resisted sharing tax forms with children or worried about immigration status.
Marketing to these students required being very involved, including going to state offices to get birth certificates with them where necessary. They followed up with potential students many, many times, in part to help train them to show up when scheduled. A man who worked at another school told about bringing in a psychoanalyst to consider their students, who found that they were “stuck in a moment of trauma from their lives,” and that students were looking for and would respond well to a “good-enough mother,” a caring authority figure who could help them move past their trauma. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the enrollment personnel Cottom encountered were women. When Cottom contacted schools as a prospect, they focused on whether she had the support structures in place to overcome obstacles, such as her work schedule. “There was often visible relief when I mentioned having no romantic partners.” (Cottom herself talks about her experience working at the beauty college with women stranded at the end of the day when their boyfriends failed to show up to drive them home, even though the women owned the cars.)
Lots of classic sales techniques: “I was particualrly struck by how the [enrollment officer] used questioning techniques that made it difficult to answer any way but affirmatively. … On eleven separate occasions at nine schools, the EO said of a job board, ‘You mentioned that you’re looking for a more professional job. Do you think this career board might help you keep an eye out for a better job?’” The schools touted Bureau of Labor Statistics income projections for relevant fields (with asterisks in small print about making no promises), and “made a big deal—through design and the enrollment counselors presentation—about the data being from the federal government and not something made up at the school,” while the school’s job placement data were always subordinate—“generally in a footnote or small table,” implying that national numbers were more important. The schools accepted the necessity of complying with federal regulations about disclosing job placement, but that didn’t mean they had to embrace its spirit.
Enrollment officers made it much easier to enroll than community colleges’ admissions offices did; Cottom contrasts their helpfulness to mystifying community college websites that required social capital to navigate. At for-profit colleges, they never assumed that Cottom had the skills to navigate complex bureaucracy. Nor did they assume that likely students were already committed to the value of college. Rather than touting their school specifically, they talked up the monetary/job-seeking value of a degree. Cottom suggests that the EOs take more or less the place of the “helicopter parents” of the anxious middle class, shepherding their progeny through the steps necessary to survive in a country that has largely abandoned collective responsibility. The simplicity here works for people who are especially vulnerable and lacking in that kind of social capital. But then, they don’t deliver the same results as traditional colleges. For-profit colleges perpetuate inequality by offering riskier credentials than traditional colleges, regardless of whether there’s any intent to discriminate. “[W]hen for-profit colleges design a speedy enrollment process because women have so little flexible time, or assume that I need a job to support my kids, they are profiting from inequality.”
Cottom spends some time on the issue of credit transfer—community colleges resist accepting for-profit credits, and there’s real concern for quality behind that, but it also makes it harder for students to swallow the sunk costs if they realize that they’d do better with a traditional degree. More students lost credits in moving from public or private not-for-profits to for-profits than any other situation (69 and 83% of transfers lost credit, respectively, compared to 38% making a public-to-public transfer). Cottom also points out that the prestige issues and the unwillingness of traditional community colleges to equate themselves with for-profits are additional barriers, over and above the serious concerns about course quality, which aren’t assuaged by for-profits’ treatment of classroom conditions as trade secrets. But making it hard to transfer increases the emotional costs, not just the (significant) financial costs, of choosing what might well be a better college once the student figures that out.
Ultimately, Cottom concludes, for-profit colleges are part of a negative social insurance program—rather than protecting individuals from the risks of modern life and predatory labor markets, negative social insurance allows specific private entities to profit from others’ insecurity. Solutions, she suggests, have to come from good work: a $15/hour minimum wage, for a start. Recently on her blog, https://tressiemc.com/essays-2/lower-ed-lives/ she tied these issues to even more current events: “Shareholder for-profit colleges anticipate a more favorable regulatory climate, thus their rebounding stocks. But, they also anticipate more favorable social policies from this administration that will continue to make workers feel vulnerable in the new economy. Gutting the American Care Act for health savings accounts is just one example. Those kinds of risk shift degrade job quality and make workers willing to pursue all kinds of credentialing to increase their odds of securing higher quality work.”