The education of black and Hispanic women is very much at stake in the on-going controversy over for-profit colleges. A November 9th story in the New York Times by Tamar Lewin, “Scrutiny and Suits Take Toll on For-Profit Company,” documented potential abuses found at Kaplan University, one of the schools that disproportionately enrolls black female students. Carlos Urquilla-Diaz a former Kaplan administrator, “recalled a PowerPoint presentation showing African-American women who were raising two children by themselves as the company’s primary target. Such women, Mr. Urquilla-Diaz said, were considered most likely to drop out before completing the program, leaving Kaplan with the aid money and no need to provide more services.”
The recruiting tactics of some for-profit colleges are not the only problem. There has been too much emphasis on increasing four-year graduation rates rather than offering alternatives, particularly occupational programs that lead to certification or two-year degrees. The strong evidence for this is summarized in an American Educator lead article, “Beyond One-Size-Fits-All College Dreams.” Earnings among college graduates have become more dispersed, and earnings from many certificate and occupational two-year degrees have risen. As a result, more than 60 percent of those with two-year degrees make more than the lowest 25 percent of four-year college graduates. In this environment, cajoling weakly-performing high school students into focusing their goals on four-year degrees may not be in their best interest.
Many students are well aware of the hurdles they face in seeking four-year degrees. Some enroll in occupational programs but others seek four-year degrees by enrolling in private and public colleges that give them the best chance of reaching their goals. For black students, most identifiable are the Historically Black Colleges (HBCs) but there are many more colleges that serve this role. Black students graduate disproportionately from these schools. In 2006, 19.29 percent of all black female four-year graduates came from the HBCs. In addition, another 19.25 percent of black female graduates came from colleges where black women comprise at least 25 percent of female graduates. As a result, nearly 40 percent of black female graduates came from a small group of colleges that produce only 7.56 percent of all female graduates.
This voluntary separateness is even stronger among Latinas. Whereas 42.44 percent of all Latino four-year graduates are from schools where Latinas comprise at least 25 percent of their graduates, these colleges produced only 7.25 percent of all female graduates. Similar results exist for the production of black and Latino male graduates.
These colleges that produce a disproportionate share of black and Latino four-year graduates are uniformly among the least competitive private and public schools nationally. For black women, excluding the HBCs, the three largest degree grantors were DeVry University, Strayer University, and the University of Phoenix; all for-profit proprietary schools. In the New York City area, Monroe College, College of New Rochelle, and Nyack College produce a substantial number of black female graduates.
How do we assess these degrees from these colleges? Some might argue that highlighting the weak schools that produce a disproportionate share of blacks and Latinos graduates ignores the countless less competitive “white” colleges that produce similar graduates. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t take into account the widely-held negative stereotypes attached to these schools: that graduates lack the basic educational skills associated with the typical white graduate. Just as colleges recruit students through their “branding,” whether justified or not, these colleges may have a negative branding among many prospective employers. As a result, their graduates might face more difficult employment prospects than comparable white graduates from weaker colleges.
This “branding” problem seemed to be affecting the employment prospects of black and Latino students who graduated from the City University of New York (CUNY) colleges that have a disproportionately high share of black and Latino graduates. So worried were the CUNY administrators that in 1999 they instituted a rising junior exam – the CUNY Proficiency Exam (CPE). This exam tested students who had successfully completed at least 45 college credits on their English and Quantitative Reasoning skills. Students had to pass this exam if they desired to enroll beyond 75 credits at the four-year colleges or to transfer out of the community colleges. CUNY administrators decided that this exam was necessary to ensure prospective employers that all CUNY graduates had attained college-level skills.
In theory, the CPE would have weeded out four-year college students who despite lax course grading standards were moving towards a four-year degree despite their deficient skills. The problem, however, was that CUNY administrators were well aware of the maelstrom they would create if they excluded many black and Latino college students through this exam. As a result, the passing rate was low enough and the scoring system, particularly on the quantitative reasoning sections generous enough, that virtually no students were excluded because they were unable to pass the exam. Given that the exam became meaningless and was quite expensive to administer, it was finally eliminated in 2010.
If instead we look into the process by which these colleges produce their black and Latino graduates, they might be quite effective in teaching the core fundamentals necessary for a graduate to be an effective lower-tier manager or professional. Rather than facing uphill and often insurmountable barriers at more comprehensive and more demanding colleges, students can be successful at these schools, obtain the credentials and skills necessary to gain middle-class jobs and incomes.
Of course, it may be that a substantial share of four-year degrees obtained by black and Latino students at these schools may have little labor market currency. Indeed, they may be worth so much less that these students could have done better taking their chances at a more reputable school or enrolling in occupational programs at the community colleges. Worst still, the documented abuses of many of the for-profit colleges in their occupational training programs may be reproduced in their academic programs. Their students accumulate loan debt rather than marketable skills. This certainly seems to be the case at Kaplan University.
For these reasons, it is imperative that the outcomes from these schools be studied. In particular, what are the job placements and earnings of their graduates? How does this compare to other schools in their area that have more traditional, more established programs? Are there any strengths that can be duplicated by a broader group of colleges? Black and Hispanic students, and educators in general, must focus on this issue. Only by looking at how these degrees are produced can we accurately judge the impact of the voluntary segmentation of black and Latino four-year college graduates.