Q&A with Tressie McMillan Cottom on her new book, ‘Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges In The New Economy’

Q&A with Tressie McMillan Cottom on her new book, ‘Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Col...
Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ph.D.
Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ph.D.

In “Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges In The New Economy” Virginia Commonwealth University sociology professor Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ph.D., explores the rise of for-profit colleges like ITT Technical Institute and the University of Phoenix, and links the industry’s rapid expansion to America’s growing inequality.

Cottom, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and a faculty associate with Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, recently discussed her new book with VCU News.

How would you describe the central argument of “Lower Ed?”

The central argument in “Lower Ed” is that a robust for-profit college sector is a symptom of a failing social safety net and stagnant social mobility.

Your book is the first to link the growth in for-profit degrees to America's growing income inequality, particularly impacting women and people of color. Could you describe the ways in which they're linked? 

For-profit degrees are a kind of insurance in a very competitive labor market where there aren't enough good jobs for all who would have them and in a society where the bad jobs don't afford people a dignified quality of life. Like almost all insurance schemes, groups with the least amount of assets and fewest opportunities to earn assets are the most likely to value insurance against risk. In this case, the risk is a pretty bad job with all that entails: on-demand scheduling, low prestige, limited upward mobility and promotion, and poor health care. Because of historical discrimination, women and people of color — and especially women of color — are the least likely to have the wealth and income to protect them from the risk of bad jobs. And, they are the ones most likely responsible for a network of people — children, elderly parents. The pressure on women is particularly high and the risk of bad jobs are especially pertinent. For this reason, women are very vulnerable to the kind of promises that for-profit colleges make: good jobs, fast, and little immediate personal expense. 

How did your experiences as a former admissions counselor at for-profit colleges inform your perspective on the industry?

My experiences matter in two crucial ways. First, it is very hard for researchers to gain access to for-profit colleges to conduct long-term studies. My experience working in the sector is very valuable because it is quite rare. This is something all social scientists are dealing with, by the way. As more of our social life becomes privatized, it becomes harder for researchers like me to get access to data about our most pressing social problems. Second, my experiences in the sector gave me a very nuanced understanding of for-profit colleges as a system. And it gave me a great deal of respect for the students who are making really difficult choices. 

With more than 2 million students enrolled in for-profit colleges today, what do you see behind the demand for degrees for these institutions?

Bad jobs and ineffective government policy have created the demand for college, any college and at any cost. That is manna for the for-profit college sector. 

Do you see any sort of upside or benefit to the presence of for-profit colleges?

Let me be clear: For-profit colleges can provide opportunity for some students. The question is if the limited opportunity they provide some individuals is worth the significant public investment in for-profit colleges given how many more students will not benefit from them at all. 

The for-profit college industry declined during the Obama administration, which took a fairly aggressive approach to regulating the industry in the administration’s last two years. Do you expect we'll see a resurgence of for-profit higher education under the Trump presidency?

The for-profit college sector certainly expects to see a resurgence under President Trump. Shareholder for-profit college stocks rallied after Trump won the election. And, there is every indication that the Department of Education under President Trump (and Betsy DeVos) will not pursue aggressive regulation of for-profit colleges. At recent hearings, DeVos was not even aware of the relationship between student loans and for-profit colleges. That does not bode well for those who think the department should regulate the sector. More importantly, more aggressive cuts to social insurance programs like the Affordable Care Act and Medicare only increases the insecurity that workers feel. And when workers feel insecure, many of them turn to fast, easy credentialing — the kind that for-profit colleges have made their specialty.

What will you be working on next?

I am very excited to continue my research on technology and inequality. I am in the very early stages of thinking about a major book project on racial inequality and technological change in work and education.


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