This week, I have the pleasure of reviewing another fantastic book. Like some of my other selections, I have been waiting to read this one for a few months, especially after hearing such wonderful things about it. It’s also about a sector of education that I know embarrassingly little about: for-profit education, or what the author terms “Lower Ed.” But more on that later – let’s start the review!
Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy
Tressie McMillan Cottom
The New Press © 2017
Okay, so first things first: this book definitely lives up to the hype. It’s an amazingly thorough and readable book, and McMillan Cottom has an ability for story telling that is oftentimes hard to find in education literature. Furthermore, as someone who does ethnographic work, I truly appreciated McMillan Cottom’s sociological perspective, as well as her drawing from her personal experiences with for-profit education, empirical research, and her own exhaustive study. McMillan Cottom’s main argument is a cogent elucidation of the stratification of educational opportunities between higher education and what she terms “lower ed,” or a for-profit educational sector that is, in many ways, a dangerous proposition for the students who enroll.
Lower Ed does not demonize the students for any perceived “lack of success,” however, which is another strength of the text. Instead of positioning students as failures for leaving for-profit institutions with ballooning loan payments, no degrees, and/or a lack of employment opportunities, McMillan Cottom reminds readers of the context in which for-profit education becomes the best choice amongst poor options. In doing so, McMillan Cottom traces the landscape for many students at for-profit colleges in the new economy, or the current sociopolitical moment in which more jobs are requiring advanced/technical skills. Moreover, these jobs are requiring such training and skills immediately, and are not paying to support their long-term staff to go back to school. This creates a press in which long-term employees are deemed underprepared, and they must get a degree/credential as expediently as possible. Throughout the book, McMillan Cottom depicts the new economy in stark, albeit highly accurate, terms: it is profit-centered, and is built on the myth that individual persistence will lead to a better life. If not, then that is the fault of the individual, not the system. Additionally, the new economy is positioned as a fast-paced environment in which those who are not nimble will not succeed.
With time mattering more, and the ratcheting up of educational degrees and credentialing programs as a prized possession in an increasingly-technical workforce, McMillan Cottom shows how for-profit colleges carved a niche for themselves. Furthermore, through collusion from the federal government in the form of being able to gain access to financial aid monies, for-profit education has been created—and stands to continue in the current political administration—as a further extension of the new economy: an uncaring institution that benefits from students’ financial investments, but has no real incentive to worry about their success. In fact, the recent announcement that the current Secretary of Education will reconsider the gainful-employment rule and the defense-to-repayment regulation are a reminder of just how little for-profit colleges and the current political administration care about the success of their largely marginalized student populations. And again, this lack of care is all couched within a rhetoric of individualism, “hard-work-will-lead-to-your-own-success,” and a “students-first” smokescreen. Remember, it is the current Secretary of Education who continues to claim that her “first priority is to protect students” (Harris, 2017, para. 4).
Lower Ed is a telling text that gives an inside look into a for-profit educational complex that largely operates behind closed doors…and does so on purpose. Surely, the numbers (e.g., dropout rates, loans amassed and defaulted upon, time to graduation) speak for themselves in many senses. However, Lower Ed does a superlative job discussing why students continue to enroll in for-profit colleges, despite the high costs. Again, McMillan Cottom’s sociological perspective is drastically important here: were the new economy not what it is, perhaps for-profit education would not be as alluring as it is; however, it is…and so it seems to be…and students—many of whom are single parents, people of color, and/or in lower socioeconomic class brackets—continue to enroll, seeking a way to “move up.”
Perhaps the first thing educators can begin to unlearn by reading this book is our own academic elitism. Particularly for those of us without any experience or knowledge of lower ed, such as myself, we tend to buy into the normalized conceptualization of four-year not-for-profit higher education is the very pinnacle of the educational pyramid. Even though many of us talk a good game about education as a public good, we—as a field—are not wholly committed to recreating educational systems. Especially in times of scarcity, such as now, the first thing on many of our minds is—you guessed it—our own hides/jobs/resources/budgets.
I get that…and yet…we must lift while we climb. If we are truly invested in education as a practice of freedom (hooks, 1994), or the idea of education as a form of democratizing society, then we must be thoughtful, aware, and knowledgeable about how lower ed works (and how the way lower ed currently works is reinforced/reinforces the way higher education works). This means we need to be resisting the rubbish policies the current administration is advocating regarding for-profit colleges…which requires that we know what they mean…which means that we must invest in understanding for-profit education. As I tell the students I learn with, we cannot resist what we don’t know, so it’s best we get to knowing the lower ed landscape, as well as its many dis/connections to/from higher education.
The next thing educators can learn from McMillan Cottom’s book is how to speak in convincing-yet-highly-approachable ways for a general audience about the work we do as educators. Although not by intentional design, a number of the books I have read recently have helped me rethink how I write for a broader (read: non-educational) audience. And if ever there was a time when that was dreadfully important for those of us in education, it is now. Shoot, it is past now based on who our current Secretary of Education is, and how she continues to demonize public education and the notion of education as a public good. Lower Ed, Living a Feminist Life (which I reviewed previously), and Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price (which I will review next week) are all case studies in how to articulate highly nuanced empirical studies and critically important theoretical positions to broader publics beyond those who are already on board. Heck, these three books speak even to people who may not even care to be on board in the first place. This is rare, in my estimation, and is a real gift that McMillan Cottom has provided us as her readers.
Lower Ed is a highly engaging, concise, and clear analysis of a sector of education that continues to vex many. I would strongly recommend you take a weekend to read this book, even if you never plan to work in for-profit education. Because, at the end of the day, lower ed and higher ed are far more linked than perhaps we (in higher ed) know or want to believe. And, at the end of the day, we must be invested in reclaiming all of education as a practice of freedom; not just some colleges, or some sectors, or some types of institutions.
This blog is a space where I share my thoughts on trans*-related issues. I also will share my own research as it develops, including papers, presentations, and the development of my dissertation study with trans* college students.