Dissertation project

"The Expansion of For-profit Colleges in the 21st Century and Its Implications for Social Inequality"

The dramatic expansion of for-profit colleges during the first decade of the 21st century is one of the most fascinating and controversial changes US higher education. Enrollment in this sector increased from 1 million students in 2000 to over 4 million students in 2010--an increase of about 400 percent--mostly due to high enrollment among trandtionally underserved populations. The quick expansion of the sector, which ignited much debate over the benefits and contributions of these trends to inequality, provides a unique opportunity to examine how expansion through the differentiation of non-selective institutions can  exacerbate or mitigate inequality in students’ outcomes. 

My dissertation examines the sources of the growth of the for-profit sector of higher education and assesses the implications of this growth for socioeconomic inequality. Empirical research questions include: What organizational strategies enabled the expansion of these relatively peripheral and low-status institutions in the highly institutionalized field of higher education? How did these changes in the ecology of higher education influence the social environment students encounter on college campuses? How do educational outcomes differ for students who attend for-profit colleges compared to other types of colleges, especially community colleges? To what extent can inequality in outcomes be traced to differences in the types of students who attend for-profit colleges, and to what extent can we isolate a causal effect of institution type?

These questions are answered using two large, nationally representative samples, one for a cohort of high school students that entered higher education prior to the expansion of for-profit colleges (NELS 1988-2000) and one for a cohort of high school students that entered during the expansion (the ELS 2002-2012), along with detailed panel data on all accredited for-profit institutions in the U.S between 2000 and 2010.


One major finding of the dissertation is that for-profit colleges enhance socioeconomic inequality in the US, both by increasing socioeconomic sorting in the type of colleges that students attend, and by reducing the odds that low-SES students will earn a bachelor’s degree. A second major finding is that between 2000 and 2010, the for-profit colleges that were most successful in raising enrollment were those that adopted a hybrid strategy of imitation and innovation: by mimicking traditional non-profit colleges, for-profits were able to gain legitimacy, but by innovating their organizational structure (e.g., flexible calendars, online degrees, etc.), they were able to compete against community colleges and other non-profit colleges. These results lay the groundwork for a theoretical and practical understanding of changes in the higher education market. My future projects will explore the organizational mechanisms that generate negative outcomes for students (e.g., tuition rates, online learning, quality of instruction, etc.). 

A paper based on my dissertation, titled "College for All, Degrees for Few: For-Profit Colleges and Socioeconomic Inequality in Degree Attainment", is forthcoming in Social Forces. This paper was previously selected as a finalist for the 2016 William H. Newman Award for Best Paper based on a Dissertation by the Academy of Management. An abriged version of this paper also appeared in the 2016 Best Paper Proceeding of the Academy of Management.