It’s only March, but I’m declaring the Higher Ed book of the year competition closed. No one is going to beat Tressie McMillan Cottom’s book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy. It is genius.
Before I start praising this book to the skies, it’s worth noting that this is a very American book. Anyone looking for insights into for-profits outside the United States should look elsewhere: the insights generated here do not translate well to other countries. This isn’t a fault: American authors use a kind of ex-cathedra voice saying “this is how it is” because it doesn’t occur to their publishers that there is a world outside the US worth catering to. So when they say “this is how it is” they mean “this is how it is in the US”. This is not a fault of the author, but something to keep in mind while reading it.
What makes McMillan Cottom’s story different from other good accounts of the private higher education market (see for instance A.J. Angulo’ Diploma Mills) is her experience within the industry. After graduating from her Bachelor’s program, she worked in the industry both in the “mom-and-pop” sector of the industry (that is, colleges that are locally owned small-ish business) and the new breed of national chain schools, owned by NYSE-listed companies whose approach to the industry is to simply, relentlessly, make money. She knows the industry from the inside out. As part of the sales force in these two companies, she has a deep understanding not just of the sales techniques, but of the customer base as well.
As was the case for last year’s One Thought book of the year, Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price, it’s the way the author allows students to speak for themselves which is so arresting. But in this case it’s an even more stunning technique because for-profit schools themselves have been so misunderstood. McMillan Cottom pushes back – hard – on the idea that private-college students are simply low-information students, that it is in part through ignorance that they attend such high-risk/low-reward institutions. While agreeing that many students are only dimly aware, if at all, of the prestige ladder of higher education and where these institutions fall within it, she counters by saying that what these students understand above all is a form of education gospel – that education and only education will lead them to success. And what for-profit colleges do, primarily, is find ways to satisfy that need in a way with a level of convenience that public colleges choose not to match.
The ridiculously complicated FAFSA (student aid) process? They take care of that for you. Complicated class schedule? They simplify that too. A need to wait until next September to start classes? Nu-uh: in private colleges, intakes start every month, so you can get started right away. If you’re mid-career and need some education to change your life who wants to hang around waiting for months to get started? So what’s the problem?
The problem of course is that return on investment on these course is usually terrible, with students getting sucked far into debt to get credentials that tend not to qualify them for jobs that would make the expense worthwhile. But if states put licensure requirements on – say – hairdressing, which pays maybe $12-15/hour, then what they are actually doing is allowing the people who provide training to enter that field to extract massive amounts of rent. It’s crazy to pay $20,000 for a hairdressing course to get a job that pays so little. But the alternative is no education and no job. And so the schools continue to attract students.
Eventually, as the scale of the con became apparent to her, McMillan Cottom quit the industry to start a PhD in sociology at Emory (key detail: Emory said yes even though the start of class was only a month away – the speed of the application turnaround was consequential). The result of that PhD was this book. It contains some elements which are very traditionally academic, such as a systemic look at how the industry was transformed when big chains of schools took over the market in the aughts, at right around the same time as the US economy began its long, post-dotcom decline. But it also contains some deeply original and arresting moments, such as overheard snippets of conversation in shopping malls.
McMillan Cottom’s critique goes beyond the predatory recruitment techniques of for-profit colleges. She sees them, in a sense, as a natural outgrowth of the current moment of capitalism (she would use the phrase “neo-liberalism”, which makes my teeth ache a bit, even though she uses the term in a more rigorous way than almost anyone else I’ve ever read). If good jobs are becoming scarce and education is required to get those jobs, and public education is insufficiently funded and public post-secondary institutes don’t do their job in terms of making themselves truly accessible (in terms of making enrolment convenient and easily understandable), then yeah – somebody is going to fill that market niche. So is the problem the niche-fillers or the failure of the political system to prevent that niche from opening in the first place?
Anyways, don’t take my word for it. Read it yourself. You won’t be sorry.