Profiting From Inequality: Lower Ed

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy is a powerful contribution to the scholarship of higher education. A sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Cottom explains why for-profit higher education is growing, why it is fundamentally flawed, and yet, in today’s economy, why for so many students it seems to makes sense. The book is grounded in solid scholarship, supported by data and hundreds of interviews. Lower Ed is not an exposé of diploma mills. Instead, Cottom advances arguments and theory that strive for clarity and explanation.

She writes from personal and academic experience. Cottom was a recruiter for two for-profit institutions, a beauty school and a technical school. She worked with good people, faculty, staff and students. A crisis of conscience, spurred by high-pressure sales and loans to students who would not be able to pay them back, led her to her resignation and a career change. She returned to traditional higher education as a graduate student and ultimately turned her critical eye to the for-profit world she left.

Lower Ed explains how for-profit higher educational institutions operate: to their students, their staff, and their faculty. She describes facilities, the size of the marketing/recruitment team, and the tactics employed to land students. Student stories and Cottom’s own first-hand investigatory work give the narrative a journalistic feel. For-profit education salesmanship is sophisticated and very successful. About two million Americans are enrolled at for-profit colleges, a significant increase from 400,000 students in 2000. Federal loans and grants are essential to the business. The Trump administration has weakened higher education regulations, so we can expect numbers of students in the for-profit world to rise further.

Cottom weaves students’ stories throughout. Jason was recently married and wanted a better job so that they could afford a family. His plan was to get a degree from a for-profit technical institute. Mike sought an MBA for the cash he would obtain as part of the loan package. London, a repeat student of the for-profits, hoped that a health care degree would lift her out of poverty. Her back up plan was Jesus. Students in for-profit higher education, compared to those in regular education, are more likely to be female, of color, older, poorer, and to have debt. Student success rates are low. The debate about the extent to which for-profit education fails its students is contested, but there is no doubt that most are not successful.

What sets Lower Ed apart – and really made me think – is Cottom’s location of for-profit education in our politics, culture, and economy. In the past few decades, as the social safety net has been trimmed, ever greater responsibility has shifted to the individual. This is true for health care, for retirement, and for education. Individual Americans are assuming ever more risk as the government and other organizations have reduced their commitments. The change can offer advantages to the wealthy, connected and informed. It is devastating to the poor, the isolated, and the uninformed. This latter group is where for-profit education has grown and made tremendous profit.

In today’s economy, good jobs are harder to find and credentials and connections matter all the more. College is the most recognized and reliable path to security and employment. Americans know this and so do for-profit colleges. They organize their recruitment strategies and business models around it. Support is around the clock, and courses are usually short and offered at times convenient to busy adults. For-profit colleges emphasize to their students that they understand them and that they are designed for them. In sum, for-profit colleges profit from inequality.

Cottom argues that for-profit colleges are indicators of social and economic inequality and perpetuators of that inequality. Accordingly, changes in education regulations will not have much of an impact. The real change will have to be something deeper: a long-term commitment to greater equality.

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a best-selling novel about the meatpacking industry in Chicago, was written in the early 1900s. Still popular today Sinclair wanted Americans to read it and become socialists. However, his book instead led to food and safety reforms. Sinclair famously said that “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

I hope that Lower Ed does not suffer a similar fate. Reforms in for-profit education are needed and we would all be better to address inequality. I heartily recommend Professor Cottom’s book. I am also looking forward to reading her future work – she is a scholar to watch.

David Potash

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