Tag Archives: class

For-Profit Colleges and the Conditions that Feed Them

One of the better things about social media is that if you manage to curate social feeds with just the right balance of entertaining spirits and brilliant intellects, it delivers unto you amazing content you would have otherwise missed.

I woke up one of these days — Sunday? Monday? I’m dissertating — to find dozens of messages from social media comrades about John Oliver’s take-down of for-profit colleges. You can watch it here:

It’s very satisfying.

It is particularly satisfying if you’ve experienced what education professor Kevin Kinser rightly points out is the oddly sporadic nature of public interest in a 100 year old institutional practice of selling education for profit. Oliver is one of the best in the entertainment-as-news genre. He reaches people that mainstream media does not. He makes difficult issues palatable for general, concerned audiences.

And if you think about debt, precarity, credentialism, and financial cronyism, like I do, it is gratifying to see someone like Oliver take on an issue most people could care less about until someone they care about borrows $50,000 for a veterinary assistant’s degree. Then they’re emailing you like the roof is on fire.

I do have a greater hope, though, than that something I study benefit from the spotlight of people like Oliver.

I wish we could talk about impoverished educations without ignoring impoverished conditions.

Here’s the thing, for-profit colleges have manipulated a system primed for manipulation. No doubt about that. But eliminating for-profit colleges does not eliminate the conditions that cause people to seek them out.

By and large, none of the people I have interviewed, observed or worked with is an idiot without agency. They have sometimes been lied to and led astray; occasionally they are bamboozled by sparkly advertising and aggressive sales tactics. They do sign documents they do not completely understand and they trust authority that has little incentive to counsel as opposed to sell. All of that is true.

But most students picked up the phone to “call today; start tomorrow” because they have been unemployed, underemployed, marginalized, and otherwise made vulnerable by socio-economic conditions.

So, by all means, crib Oliver’s letter. It’s a doozy.

But maybe keep in mind that moving inequality around isn’t exactly the same as addressing inequality.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.  Her doctoral research is a comparative study of the expansion of for-profit colleges.  You can follow her on twitter and at her blog, where this post originally appeared.

Does Homogamy Matter? A Query by OKCupid

In general, married couples are homogamous.  That is, they are more likely than not to match on a whole host of characteristics: age, income, education level, race, religion, immigration history, attractiveness level, and more.

But, does homogamy really translate into compatibility?  Or, do we just think it does?

OKCupid set about to find out.  This is the second of two posts about recent revelations that they, like Facebook, have been doing experiments on users. The last one was a depressing look at the role of attractiveness on the site. This one is about the impact of match ratings.  Yep, they lied to see what would happen.

OkCupid users answer a series of questions and the site then offers a “match rating” between any two users.  The idea is that people with a higher match rating are more homogamous — by some measure not identical to those that sociologists typically use, to be clear — and, therefore, more likely to get along.

The first thing they did was artificially alter the match rating for couples whose true match was only 30%.  Users could read the profile, look at the pictures, reviews answers to questions, and see a match rating.  In other words, they had a lot of information and one summary statistic that might be true or false.

People were slightly more likely to send a message and continue a conversation  if they thought they were a 60% match or better.  This is interesting since all these couples were poorly matched and it shouldn’t have been too difficult to discover that this was so.

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Rudder’s interpretation of the data is that you can make two people like each other by just telling them that they should.

Or maybe, he considered, their algorithm was just terrible. So, they took couples who matched at the 30, 60, and 90% rating and displayed a random match rating that was wrong two-thirds of the time.  Then, they waited to see how many couples got to exchanging four messages (their measure of a “conversation”).

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The lower right corner suggests that the ideal situation is to be a good match and know it.  Likewise, if you’re a bad match and you know it things probably won’t get very far. But the difference between actually being a good match and just thinking you are isn’t as big as we might think it would be.  At least, not in the space of four messages.

So, does homogamy really translate into compatibility?  Or, do we just think it does?  Maybe a little of both.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

New Orleans after Katrina: An Uneven Recovery

To mourn, commemorate, and celebrate the city of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  Photographer Ted Jackson returned to the site of some of his most powerful photographs, re-taking them to reveal the progress, or lack of progress, of the past nine years.

You can see them all at nola.com; I’ve pulled out three that speak to the uneven recovery that I see when I visit.

In this first photo, residents struggle to keep their heads above water by balancing on the porch railing of a home in the Lower 9th Ward, what was once a vibrant working class, almost entirely African American neighborhood. Today, the home remains dilapidated, as did one-in-four homes in New Orleans as of 2010.

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In the first photo of this second set, a man delivers fresh water to people stranded in the BW Cooper Housing Development, better known as the Calliope Projects.  Today, the housing development is awaiting demolition, having been mostly empty since 2005.  Some suspect that closing these buildings was an excuse to make it difficult or impossible for some poor, black residents to return.

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This set of homes is  located in an upper-income part of the city.  The neighborhood, called Lakeview, suffered some of the worst flooding, 8 to 10 feet and more; it has recovered very well.

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

In Employers’ Eyes, For-Profit Colleges are Equivalent to High School

Holding a college degree, it is widely assumed, improves the likelihood that a person will be successful in the labor market.  This maxim draws individuals into college across the class spectrum and aspiring students who are low-income or non-white may find themselves enrolled at a for-profit college.

For profit colleges have been getting slammed for their high prices, low bars, and atrocious graduation rates.  Now we have another reason to worry that these institutions are doing more harm than good.

Economist Rajeev Darolia and his colleagues sent out 8,914 fictitious resumes and waited to see if they received a response.  They were interested in whether attending a for-profit college actually enhanced job opportunities, as ads for such schools claim, so they varied the level of education on the resumes and whether the applicant attended a for-profit or community college.

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It turns out that employers evaluate applicants who attended two-year community colleges and those who attended for-profit colleges about equally.  Community colleges, in other words, open just as many doors to possibility as for-profit ones.

Darolia and his colleagues then tested whether employers displayed a preference for applicants who went to for-profit colleges versus applicants with no college at all.  They didn’t. Employers treated people with high school diplomas and coursework at for-profit colleges equivalently.

Being economists, they staidly conclude that enrolling in a for-profit college is a bad investment.

H/t Gin and Tacos. Image borrowed from Salon.com. Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Saturday Stat: 23% of U.S. Children Live in Poverty

If the well-being of our children is an indicator of the health of our society we definitely should be concerned.  Almost one-fourth of all children in the U.S. live in poverty.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation publishes an annual data book on the status of American children.  Here are a few key quotes from 2014 (all data refer to children 18 and under, unless otherwise specified):

  • Nationally, 23 percent of children (16.4 million) lived in poor families in 2012, up from 19 percent in 2005 (13.4 million), representing an increase of 3 million more children in poverty.
  • In 2012, three in 10 children (23.1 million) lived in families where no parent had full-time, year-round employment. Since 2008, the number of such children climbed by 2.9 million.
  • Across the nation, 38 percent of children (27.8 million) lived in households with a high housing cost burden in 2012, compared with 37 percent in 2005 (27.4 million).

As alarming as these statistics are, they hide the terrible and continuing weight of racism.  Emily Badger, writing in the Washington Post, produced the following charts based on tables from the data book.

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Children live in poverty because they live in families in poverty.  Sadly, despite the fact that we have been in a so-called economic expansion since 2009, most working people continue to struggle.  The Los Angeles Times reported that “four out of 10 American households were straining financially five years after the Great Recession — many struggling with tight credit, education debt and retirement issues, according to a new Federal Reserve survey of consumers.”

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Ross Douthat is puzzled. He seems to sense that a liberal policy might actually help, but his high conservative principles and morality keep him from taking that step. It’s a political version of Freudian repression – the conservative superego forcing tempting ideas to remain out of awareness.

In his column, Douthat recounts several anecdotes of criminal charges brought against parents whose children were unsupervised for short periods of time.  The best-known of these criminals of late is Debra Harrell, the mother in South Carolina who let her 9-year-old daughter go to a nearby playground while she (Debra) worked at her job at McDonald’s. The details of the case make it clear that this was not a bad mom – not cruel, not negligent. The playground was the best child care she could afford.

One solution should be obvious – affordable child care.  But the U.S. is rather stingy when it comes to kids. Other countries are way ahead of us on public spending for children.

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Conservatives will argue that child care should be private not public and that local charities and churches do a better job than do state-run programs. Maybe so. The trouble is that those private programs are not accessible to everyone. If Debra Harrell had been in France or Denmark, the problem would never have arisen.

The other conservative U.S. policy that put Debra Harrell in the arms of the law is “welfare reform.”  As Douthat explains, in the U.S., thanks to changes in the welfare system much lauded by conservatives, the U.S. now has “a welfare system whose work requirements can put a single mother behind a fast-food counter while her kid is out of school.”

That’s the part that perplexes Douthat. He thinks that it’s a good thing for the government to force poor women to work, but it’s a bad thing for those women not to have the time to be good mothers. The two obvious solutions – affordable day care or support for women who stay home to take care of kids – conflict with the cherished conservative ideas: government bad, work good.

This last issue presents a distinctive challenge to conservatives like me, who believe such work requirements are essential. If we want women like Debra Harrell to take jobs instead of welfare, we have to also find a way to defend their liberty as parents, instead of expecting them to hover like helicopters and then literally arresting them if they don’t.

As he says, it’s a distinctive challenge, but only if you cling so tightly to conservative principles that you reject solutions – solutions that seem to be working quite well in other countries – just because they involve the government or allow poor parents not to work.

Conservatives love to decry “the nanny state.”  That means things like government efforts to improve kids’ health and nutrition. (Right wingers make fun of the first lady for trying to get kids to eat sensibly and get some exercise.)

A nanny is a person who is paid to look after someone else’s kids. Well-off people hire them privately (though they still prefer to call them au pairs). But for the childcare problems of low-income parents, what we need is more of a nanny state, or more accurately, state-paid nannies.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Wealth or Good Parenting? Framing the Privileges of the Rich

“What is it that I want?”

Jane Van Galen asked herself this question after reading a gushing profile of an “island cabin” in The Seattle Times.   It begins: “Lots of folks have lots of reasons for wanting their own piece of land out of town” and quotes one of the new cabin’s owners who, when pregnant, came to realize: “I can’t raise a child just in the city … I wanted woods, salamanders and pileated woodpeckers.”

So, she and her husband “went right out,” bought nine acres on an island, and built this:

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Writing at her site, Education and Class, Van Galen processed her reaction to this article. She added up the costs, figuring that the owners spent close to a million dollars.  “I knew that my unease,” she wrote, “was not just straightforward jealously.”  So, what did she want?

She knew what she did not want:

Narratives in which the wealthy are held up as model parents who upon hearing of the dangers of the modern world, “go right out” to provide acres of weekend woods for their children; narratives that invite us to admire their paint colors and beautiful windows and solid black granite bathtub without asking too many questions about how it is that relatively young parents can ensure that their child has access to acres of his own private salamanders, and especially not to ask too many questions about how all children might have room to grow and thrive...

She wanted, “for once,” to hear wealthy people just admit they’re rich — for whatever reason — instead of framing their decision to build a vacation home as simply what any good parent would do.

“I love having this for my son,” the owner is quoted.  But Van Galen wants to know: What about everyone else’s children?

Cross-posted at Global Policy TV.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Saturday Stat: Median Household Wealth Fell by 1/3 since 2003

According to a June 2014 Russell Sage Foundation report, the average U.S. household experienced a real wealth decline of more than one-third over the 10 years ending in 2013.

Table 1 shows that the net worth of the median household fell from $87,992 in 2003 to $56,335 in 2013, for a decline of 36%.  In fact, the last ten years were hard on the overwhelming majority of American households.  Only the top 2 groups enjoyed wealth gains over the period.  Also noteworthy is the tiny net worth of households below the median.

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Figure 1 provides a longer term perspective on wealth movements.  We can see that most households enjoyed growing wealth from 1984 to the 2007 crisis, with wealth falling across the board since.  However, the median household is now significantly poorer than it was in 1984.  Only the richer households managed to maintain most of their earlier gains in wealth.

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These trends highlight the fact that we have a growing inequality of wealth, as well as of income, and they are not likely to reverse on their own.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.