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Higher Ed Powerhouse Provides New Face to For-profit Colleges

As access to higher education for minorities continues to be an underlying diversity concern, Constance Iloh looks forward to her new role as assistant professor of higher education at the University of California, Irvine. On the cusp of assuming a new assistant professor position at the University of California Irvine’s School of Education, Iloh discusses her groundbreaking research while reflecting on her past, present and future. The Research Associate in the Pullias Center for Higher Education and Ph.D. candidate at the USC Rossier School of Education has published several studies regarding college access, equity and privatization in higher education.

Constance Iloh (Photo courtesy of University of Southern California)Constance Iloh (Photo courtesy of University of Southern California)

Q: What made you decide to focus your research on the experiences of the underserved in higher education?

A: I have always been committed to college access and equity for unrepresented students, especially after becoming a Gates Millennium Scholar. My research explores the changing landscape of higher education and how this impacts access and equity for underserved students. I am particularly interested in conditions for students of color, low-income students, and post-traditional students.

Q: You have also conducted extensive research on the privatization of higher education, namely for-profit education. What is the motivation behind this controversial topic?

A: While studying business management for my masters, I was captivated by dynamics such as privatization, innovation and corporatization and how these forces impacted underserved consumer groups. I often bring a business lens to my research focus. Since 2010, I have been researching the for-profit college sector, often in comparison to community colleges. A lot of my work has been qualitative intentionally. Although there is a a lot of for-profit literature, the for-profit college student voice has been missing. This was unsettling, since, arguably, students are one of the most important stakeholders in this higher education discussion.

Q: Why do you think students are turning to for-profit colleges?

A: It is a complex question that has been a focal point of many of my research studies; including my latest article in Teachers College Record. Even the idea of college choice must be problematized given how perceived costs, benefits and accessibility vary across the postsecondary education landscape.

Q: Where do you see for-profit colleges headed?

A: The for-profit sector is sometimes subject to volatile market changes that make forecasting their future difficult. We might continue to see blurring between non-profit and for-profit colleges in institutional identity and behavior. One trend I have noticed is some for-profit institutions seeking non-profit status.

Q: What is the biggest misconception about for-profit colleges?

A: Two things immediately come to mind. First, many incorrectly conflate for-profit higher education with online education or even distance learning. This is false, as some for-profit institutions offer hybrid instructional delivery or have no online component. Second, there is a great deal of institutional heterogeneity in the for-profit college sector. Although large for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix educate more of the for-profit student population, these larger institutions are hardly representative of the entire sector. In fact, the proprietary college sector ranges from small trade and cosmetology schools to global institutions like the University of Phoenix. Both these points highlight the need for more sophistication in how we discuss and research the for-profit college sector. I am currently developing a contemporary taxonomy of this sector.

Q: What is next for you?

A: I will continue to explore underserved student groups and understudied sectors of higher education. My latest study is a yearlong exploration of the factors that influence Black student enrollment in the for-profit sector. Nationally, for-profit colleges boast high enrollments for students of color, and Black students specifically. In California, the setting of my study, there are more Black students enrolled in for-profit colleges than the California State University and University of California systems combined. Yet the college-going narratives of students of color to the for-profit sector have yet to figure prominently in the broader literature. Just prior to this study, I conducted a seven-month ethnography of a for-profit college where I explored the student experience!

Q: What do you look forward to with your new appointment?

A: I am excited to continue my work at a new intellectual home that is also innovative, evolving and rigorous. In particular, I appreciate the UCI School of Education’s interdisciplinary approaches to understanding contemporary education issues. I look forward to bringing a new and important research agenda to their education program and growing higher education focus.

Q: As one of the first Black faculty members hired in the history of UC Irvine’s School of Education, how does that make you feel?

A: It is meaningful to change a narrative. I share in this with my family, friends, colleagues, and mentors that inspire me and reinforce that anything is possible but excellence isn’t optional. I recognize any precedent is so much bigger than me.

Q: What advice would you give prospective faculty of color?

A: Allow yourself to design yourself. Be entrepreneurial about who you are as a scholar. I love being a researcher and intellectual because I can wear many hats and engage multiple audiences in new and creative ways. We often inhabit spaces that are not built with us in mind so it is important to give ourselves permission to be great on our own terms and without borders.

Jamal E. Mazyck can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @jmbeyond7.

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