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Becoming Real Colleges in the Financialized Era of U.S. Higher Education: The Expansion and Legitimation of For-Profit Colleges

Cottom, Tressie (2015)
Dissertation (193 pages)
Committee Chair / Thesis Adviser: Rubinson, Richard
Committee Members: Anderson, Carol ; Browne, Irene ; Franzosi, Roberto ; Johnson, Cathryn
Research Fields: Sociology, General
Keywords: for-profit colleges; legitimacy
Program: Laney Graduate School, Sociology
Permanent url: http://pid.emory.edu/ark:/25593/phb1w

Abstract

Are for-profit colleges real colleges? That question animates public debates, in part, because these market-based credentialing organizations account for 30 percent of U.S. higher education expansion in the first decade of the twenty first century. To be a real college is to be a credential granting organization that conforms to collective assumptions of legitimacy. This case study asks if for-profit colleges are real by asking if, and to what extent, they conform to collective accounts of what constitutes a legitimate college. I extend Elsbach's framework of legitimation accounts (1994), or discursive texts produced to justify an organization's rightness. Quantitative and qualitative content analysis of Securities and Exchange Commission filings; marketing and admissions materials; and legal actions find that for-profit colleges produced multiple comparative and justification accounts of their legitimacy for various audiences. But, I conclude that contrary to extant literature, for-profit colleges are not aiming for institutional homogeneity. Because their financialization constrains their investment in symbolic forms of educational legitimacy, for-profit colleges instead aim to manage multiple legitimate accounts as a normative organizational strategy. I include a discussion of the implications for stratification, policy, and theory.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Introduction: Situating the Problem and Organization Of the Dissertation............................ 1

Organization of the Dissertation....................................................................................... 2

CHAPTER ONE: SOCIOLOGY OF HIGHER EDUCATION............................................. 13

The U.S. Institutional Field of Higher Education............................................................ 14

History of the For-Profit College Sector......................................................................... 17

The Wall Street Era of For-Profit Colleges...................................................................... 18

CHAPTER TWO: THEORETICAL FRAMEWORKS AND RESEARCH DESIGN............. 26

Legitimation Accounts and Higher Education Sectors.................................................... 33

Elites and The Rest of Us: The Making of Higher Education's Ruling Legitimation Account 36

Hypotheses: Legitimation Accounts, Audiences, And Strategies................................ 39

Research Design............................................................................................................. 46

Data Sources.............................................................................................................. 48

Methods......................................................................................................................... 51

Summary Findings.......................................................................................................... 53

CHAPTER THREE: LEGITIMATION ACCOUNTS FOR MARKETS AND REGULATORS 56

Findings.......................................................................................................................... 57

Accreditation.............................................................................................................. 58

Extra-Institutional Actors and Legitimacy................................................................... 74

Status Groups and Differentiation.............................................................................. 79

Newbies, Working Students and G.I.s: The For-Profit College Status Group.............. 82

Legitimacy and Labor Market Correspondence.......................................................... 90

CHAPTER FOUR: LEGITIMATION ACCOUNTS FOR PROSPECTIVE STUDENTS..... 102

Findings........................................................................................................................ 104

The Telephone Call.................................................................................................. 104

The Campus Tour..................................................................................................... 106

A Calculated Hedge Against Unemployment............................................................ 109

Comparative Accounts: "Serious U"s and "Similar U"s........................................... 110

Legitimating Without Promising: Labor Markets and Professional Entry.................. 113

CHAPTER FIVE: MANAGING MULTIPLE LEGITIMATION ACCOUNTS................... 116

CHAPTER SIX: PIECING TOGETHER THE PUZZLE OF FOR-PROFIT COLLEGE EXPANSION 129

Contributions................................................................................................................ 139

Limitations................................................................................................................... 140

Future Research............................................................................................................ 140

REFERENCES.................................................................................................................. 141

Appendix A. Meta Analysis of For-Profit College Literature, Theory, Methods, and Data 155

APPENDIX B. Chapter 3: "Crisis of Legitimacy" Methodology Notes............................. 169

APPENDIX C. Chapter 4; Courting Legitimacy; Methodology Notes............................... 173

Table of Figures

Table 1. Historical Eras of For-profit Higher Education

Page 17

Figure 1. For-Profit College Growth, Wall Street Era

Page 28

Table 2. Trends in Number of Institutions and Total Enrollment by Control, Academic Year, 1991, 2001, 2011

Page 20

Table 3. Comparative Published Tuition Rates, By Institutional Control and Degree Level, 2011

Page 23

Figure 2. Credentialing Theory, Adapted from Brown

Page 29

Figure 3. Refinement to Credentialing Theory

Page 35

Figure 4. Legitimation Accounts, Between and Within Institutional Sectors

Page 41

Table 4. Hypotheses: For-Profit College Legitimation Accounts

Page 42

Table 5. Analytical Domains of Legitimation Accounts

Page 43

Table 6. Supplementary Actor Engagements in For-Profit (FP) Sector

Page 46

Table 7. Codes by Analytical Domain

Page 47

Table 8. Codes, Enabling Conditions

Page 47

Table 9. Shareholder For-Profit Colleges, SEC Prospectuses, By Year

Page 49

Table 10. Data Collection During Prospective Student Enrollment Process

Page 51

Figure 5. Different Discourses in Narrative Form

Page 53

Table 11. H1 and H2: Discursive Forms, By Analytical Domain and Audience

Page 53

Table 12. H3: Comparative Account Strategies, By Analytical Domain and Audience

Page 54

Figure 6. Form and Content Strategies of Legitimation Accounts, By Audience

Page 55

Figure 7. Revenue Collected by 15 Publicly Traded For-Profit Education Companies, 2009, By Revenue Source

Page 58

Figure 8. Code Frequency by Institution, Accreditation

Page 65

Table 13. Accreditation Status by Type

Page 66

Figure 9. Code Frequency by Accreditation Type

Page 67

Figure 10. Co-occurrence by Code: Accreditation

Page 72

Table 14. Unique Extra-Institutional Actors, minus SEC and Institutional Accreditation

Page 76

Figure 11. Code Frequency by Institution, Status Groups

Page 84

Figure 12, Function of Status Group Discourse

Page 85

Table 15. Elite Colleges and Presidential Elections

Page 91

Figure 13. Labor Market Correspondence, By Sector, Frequency Counts

Page 95

Figure 14. Legal Actions Against For-Profit Colleges, By Authority Level 2009-2014

Page 120

Figure 15. Number of Legal Actions, By For-Profit College, 2009-2014

Page 121

Table 16. Legal Actions, For Profit College Sector, By Proportion of Degrees Conferred

Page 122

Appendix A. Meta Analysis of For-Profit College Literature, Theory, Methods, and Data

Page 156

Figure 15. Meta Analysis of For-Profit College Peer-Reviewed and Academic Literature, By Method and Theoretical Framework

Page 156

Table 16. Database Search Terms for Lexis Nexus Search of Legal Actions

Page 170

APPENDIX B. Chapter 3:

"Crisis of Legitimacy" Methodology Notes

Page 171

APPENDIX C.

Chapter 4. Courting Legitimacy. Methodology Notes

Page 174

Figure 16. Code Co-Occurrence Frequencies

Page 183

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