Courtesy of Tressie McMillan Cottom
Much ink has been spilled about the for-profit college industry in recent years, but Tressie McMillan Cottom brings a unique perspective to the topic.
A sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, she is keenly aware of the ways society and policymakers can influence Americans’ lives. But she’s also worked in admissions — or sales, as she describes it — at two for-profit colleges. In her new book , “Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy,” Cottom weaves that experience with her own research and interviews to help explain how for-profit colleges became a force sucking up billions of government loan and grant dollars amid a $1.3 trillion student debt crisis.
Cottom found that her experience using Americans’ inherent belief in the power of education to convince students like Jason — a 20-something with test anxiety who needed an elderly aunt to cosign a loan so he could afford to attend the technical college where Cottom worked — was the norm among for-profit college recruiters. After going through the enrollment process at nine for-profit colleges and interviewing students in the schools, Cottom found that the “gospel of education” can be incredibly powerful, particularly in an economy where a job with family sustaining wages are difficult to count on.
MarketWatch spoke with Cottom to learn more about the book and her experience.
MarketWatch: Let’s talk about the title: What does it mean to describe for-profit colleges as “Lower Ed”?
Cottom: My thinking about this topic was influenced by my thinking about the title. It happened early on in my writing process.
The way we have treated for-profit colleges both in policy and in education and in the public discourse was as this weird separate perversion.
Lower Ed said that it was still connected to higher ed, but that something about it was unique. Instead of serving upward mobility, [for-profit colleges] serve as an insurance policy against economic insecurity. They don’t provide that vaunted idea we have for higher education.
MarketWatch: What are the bigger societal factors pushing people into these schools?
Cottom: There are lots of clues in the fact that there are so many women attending for-profit colleges.
If we know what we know about women’s economic and social conditions — those are things I was seeing play out. How are women supposed to manage the individual burden of paying for expensive, high-quality child care, health care for yourself and your immediate family members? You’re responsible for all of the foreseeable consequences of growing old. Then you’re supposed to pay for all of your kids’ education all the way through college.
What we have now added in the last 15 to 20 years is that you yourself need to always be going back to school. You can’t stop caring for your children to do it. We’re being asked to do all of this simultaneously with a lot of fear about what will happen if we fail at any of those things.
They are very explicit about that in their advertisements. It’s lots of women working at the kitchen table in the middle of the night doing their homework.
We don’t have affordable health care or child care, we don’t have unions protecting the work that all of us do, but particularly women. Because of that they’re particularly vulnerable to promises that a degree or a certificate will get you that protection.
[Editor’s note: Women make up between 60% and 76% of undergraduates at for-profit colleges, according to the Department of Education, compared with 54% to 57% of students at public or private nonprofit colleges.]
MarketWatch: How did your personal experience as a researcher and as a former employee of a for-profit college influence this book? Why, after stopping work there, did you decide to write it?
Cottom: I had very little desire to discuss it, but at the same time I was increasingly frustrated by the research and by the public conversation about for-profit colleges. It didn’t match what I experienced.
I knew those students and my experience of them was that they were not stupid. While they may not have always had all of the right information, they weren’t gullible. Being vulnerable isn’t the same as being gullible. A choice can be both rational and ultimately not turn out well for you and I wanted to explore that.
I went through the enrollment process at nine for-profit colleges and talked to students who were currently enrolled. I did find that some of my experiences were not typical but many of them were. Things like how fast it was to enroll, the scripts that the enrollment counselors used to enroll students, I found those remarkably similar.
MarketWatch: What was the most surprising thing you learned in your research?
Cottom: Speaking to the women who in my book I call swaggers — they were all doing graduate degrees — and something about that just felt really different to me.
They paid attention to the debt, but not only did they not think negatively of it, it had become for many of them a positive indicator that they were being successful. The debt was how they indicated that they worked hard on their degree. That was stunning for me.
MarketWatch: What were some of the things that most surprised you when you started working in the for-profit college world?
Cottom: One of the first shocking things for me was that nobody was an educator or even saw themselves as one. There were a few individual professors who maybe thought of themselves as that, but people running the schools weren’t educators, the people in admissions weren’t educators.
We were told very clearly that we were a sales force, which I understood to be very different from counseling. In counseling, if someone can’t really get what they want from your school, you tell them. With sales you’re supposed to present them with the information so that your school is the only logical choice you can make.
I became really conflicted by the idea that a school could maybe be a net negative for a person. I didn’t have the words for it yet, but that’s what I started wrestling with.
MarketWatch: How did we get to a point where for-profit colleges are a major part of our higher education landscape?
Cottom: For-profit colleges benefit from our public confidence in higher education broadly and benefit from the fact that we don’t have a language to distinguish a for-profit and a nonprofit college.
MarketWatch: What role do governments, students and society at large play in fixing that?
Cottom : We have approached as an education policy problem. We have seen the limits of policy especially over the last four years or so.
Even in the aggressive regulatory environment that was willing to take on some of the abuses, we’re still seeing a fairly steady enrollment, some decline, but not to historic lows.
[Editor’s note: The Obama administration cracked down on for-profit colleges over the past few years and two major chains collapsed. Still, for-profit colleges enrolled 2.8 million students during the 2014-2015 academic year, according to the government .]
I suggest that that’s because it’s not just an education policy issue. This is about social policy. We don’t have job tenure anymore, we don’t have job security from employers and we’ve said that’s all right, well you can go to school and compete for that better quality job.
(This interview has been edited for style and space.)