Lower Ed
Tressie McMillan Cottom


TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM. LOWER ED: THE TROUBLING RISE OF FOR-PROFIT COLLEGES IN THE NEW ECONOMY. THE NEW PRESS, 2017.

In about two-hundred pages, Doctor Tressie McMillan Cottom examines not what for-profit colleges are but why they are – the policy, market, and social reasons for their existence. Many ascribe the phenomena of for-profit, non-traditional colleges to the rise of neoliberalism, however, neoliberalism predates the explosion of these schools. Doctor McMillan Cottom’s work grants a fuller context for understanding this phenomenon.

Cottom begins with an account of enrolling a student at a technical college she worked for. Using this as a framework she then highlights how ideological and economic changes allowed the emergence of national share-holder for-profit colleges. She cites the shifting risk of corporate responsibility for training, retirement savings, and healthcare costs from companies to individuals as the primary factor of for-profit college growth (15).

The following two chapters discuss the author’s personal experience working in for-profit environments contrasted with the experiences of interviewed students enrolled in for-profit style programs. In these sections the context of why the students landed at an expensive, non-traditional for-profit university instead of a traditional college is examined. McMillan Cottom’s view is that much of it comes down to time; the prospective students targeted by for-profits are largely non-white, women, have children or families, and/or can’t afford to exit the labor market.  Often, for bureaucratic purposes related to welfare, the targeted prospectives must prove they are pursuing a credential that might get them work. By tying the pursuit of higher education to access to welfare, this encourages recruitment campaigns to target lower class segments of the population.

Through understanding what types of students are targeted by and enroll in these programs, Cottom unveils the institutional differences between for-profit and traditional colleges. Two interesting facts arise. The first is that for-profit schools enstate a shorter period between enrollment and the deposit of student loan refund checks. The second is that the alternative non-traditional colleges have an intense bureaucratic system for admission and enrollment that all but necessitates a middle-class upbringing to provide the social connections, foundational support, and implicit understanding of the structures required to navigate them.

Parallel to this nexus of class, race, and circumstance runs policy choices that drives the growth of share-holder colleges such as the decline of labor participation in unions which has led to increased risk for workers and families, the bleeding of public funds for education, welfare reform requirements demanding either proof of work or proof of effort towards education, and–perhaps the most glaring–an overall lack of public safety nets that allow people the means necessary to engage in long-term decision making.   

Doctor McMillan Cottom admits that sociologists are not good at solutions, but highlights movements like Black Lives Matter, The Fight for 15, The Rolling Jubilee, and a Federal Job Guarantee that could shift us from a negative social welfare program where all of the risks and costs of improving one’s station rest on the individual to a world where social policy guarantees the social contract of the old economy and insulates us from the deleterious effects of our present situation.

Jeremiah Miller
Jeremiah resides in the Rocky Mountains where he reads and thinks about technology's role in the increasing finacialization and privatization of public goods, spaces, and services.