Sep 27 2017

Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Richard A. Greenwald

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Lower Ed:

The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy

by Tressie McMillan Cottom

The New Press

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There was a time, not too long ago, when we saw college education as both an individual attainment and a societal good: We talked in lofty terms about “citizenship” and “democracy.” Not anymore. “A college education,” writes Tressie McMillan Cottom in her new book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, “whether it is a night class in auto mechanics or a graduate degree in physics, has become an individual good.” Today, everything rests on the individual’s shoulders and education is solely a personal investment. It is worth the struggle, debt, and sacrifice because it is the only way forward, and, of course, “forward” is measured only in terms of personal economic gain.

This educational philosophy of personal attainment applies to all colleges, but it starts at the top: Elite institutions justify their cost as a worthy and necessary investment in oneself. This legitimizes the gospel of education as an economic commodity and encourages the televangelists of the Lower Ed world, a group of for-profit schools that serve mostly poor students with limited educational access. “When we offer more credentials in lieu of a stronger social contract,” writes Cottom, “it is Lower Ed. When we ask for social insurance and get workforce training, it is Lower Ed. When we ask for justice and get ‘opportunity,’ it is Lower Ed.” We ignore Lower Ed at our peril. It stalls dreams, sells hope, and distorts education.

Cottom’s book is a study of this disruptive sector of education, one that the author has firsthand experience with. Before getting her Ph.D. and becoming a professor, she worked as an enrollment officer at two for-profit schools. She knows the ins and outs of these institutions and how they always have their eye on the bottom line. For Lower Ed schools, education is a very profitable business, as they wring profits out of tuition often paid by maximizing federal financial aid programs. But rather than vilify these colleges, Cottom places them within the larger context of a shifting economy and those it has left behind. She also closely examines the students’ personal stories, showing that they are often double victims, closed out of traditional educational pathways and left to attend schools with questionable curriculum and dubious results.

To help us understand the rise of for-profit education, Cottom explains how the new economy fueled a credentials race. Cottom builds on the work of political scientist Jacob Hacker, who has shown how workers shoulder more and more economic risk—risk that was once carried by businesses or the government. As corporations reduce job protections and the government slashes our social safety net, economic instability and insecurity weigh heavily on the backs of those least able to carry it. For colleges, a decrease in public funding and investment led administrations to offer fewer grants and encourage students to take out loans instead, shifting the risks of earning a degree onto students. Because credentials seem like the only handle a worker can grab to pull themselves up, we end up with a system of what Cottom calls “risky credentialing.” Everyone has been told that credentials matter—vocational training and job-ready skills require them. And we now talk about stacking credentials: Decoupling degrees and diminishing education into smaller packages tied to immediate job-market needs. To many Americans, who see a traditional undergraduate degree as out of reach, credentials seem like a path out of poverty. But not all credentials are meaningful. Students spend thousands on certificates that don’t lead anywhere. And so Lower Ed institutions thrive on this economic insecurity and inequality of access to higher education. “The more insecure people feel,” Cottom writes, “the more they are willing to spend money for an insurance policy against low wages, unemployment, and downward mobility.” And, the more likely they are to enroll in for-profit schools without asking many questions. The verdict is still out as to whether many of these programs do what they promise.

Cottom explores why students choose for-profit schools by allowing the enrollees to speak for themselves. We start to see a picture of a world with few choices or opportunities: It’s apparent that the students are picking the least-bad options available to them, often making what seem like good decisions based on limited information. For starters, most of these students don’t even know they are attending a for-profit college, with 65 percent of current for-profit students not knowing their college are for-profits and 63 percent of alumni not knowing, either. In other words, these institutions are good at hiding the fact that they are actually businesses.

Lower Ed asks us to consider the bigger picture: “What if the choices aren’t about who students are, but rather are about what makes certain choices available to some people at the expense of others?” Cottom reminds us that students enter the for-profit orbit because they are shut out of traditional schools. To take one example of how this works in practice, she shows that many higher-education institutions have complex admissions requirements with multiple handoffs between offices, people, and divisions. They have no single point of contact the way for-profit colleges have. For students who are busy trying to make ends meet, have little social capital, or limited experience with high-end bureaucracy, this is extremely important. As Cottom writes, this “model of recruitment and enrollment maximizes something similarly valuable across diverse groups: time. Time has become the commodity being traded for institutional prestige.”

By way of example, Cottom introduces us to “Janice,” a nursing student who needed a flexible program that would allow her to finish her degree—not to advance her career but simply to hold on to her job. For students like Janice “traditional four-year colleges were impractical.” Cottom reminds us that for students who lack resources and social capital, the hard sell tactics of Lower Ed work because they are coupled with intense hand-holding—treating students like customers. “Middle-class children, no matter their race,” Cottom writes, “are socialized to assume that bureaucratic systems should respond to their needs. Their parents give them the language skills, confidence, and support to engage their teachers as equals.” While poor and under-served students “must navigate a largely implicit admissions process without the vast store of social resources which the system is designed to reward.” And the traditional education system is so slow that many students are turned off. Speed of progress, rolling admissions, and short, intense programs work for economically at-risk students who want to achieve economic security as soon as possible.

It’s clear that traditional educational institutions have failed these students, despite all of their rhetoric about inclusion and open access. We need to remind our leaders that education is a right and start addressing the realities of the shredded social-safety net. Cottom presents a clear and honest picture of these issues, making the book an important addition to the current debates around education and inequality. But as good as this book is, it reveals the critical need for more research. How do we assess the quality of these Lower Ed schools without the focused research we see, for instance, on K-12 Charter Schools? One could argue that for-profit schools are a kind of higher-ed charter system. Lower Ed provides a detailed look at the admissions process, student population, and appeal of for-profit schools, but we need to know more.

We have, in essence, a three-tier educational system: Elite Ed for the 1 percent, Higher Ed for the middle class, and Lower Ed for the masses. What will the long-term impact of this system be? Vilifying these colleges won’t let the rest of us off the hook, as Cottom points out: “For-profit colleges are something more complicated than big, evil con artists. They are an indicator of social and economic inequalities and, at the same time, are perpetrators of those inequalities.” We need to tackle the hard truth of economic inequality and that must include a serious discussion about, and reform of, improving college access.

Richard A. Greenwald is a professor of history and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Fairfield University. His next book, Class Dismissed: Making College Work for Everyone in a Deeply Divided America, will be published in 2018 by the New Press.