Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

11 Jul 2018, 12:12 p.m.

Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2018 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy by Tressie McMillan Cottom (2017, The New Press) is simply excellent. Here's an excerpt, here's Dr. McMillan Cottom's page about the book, here's her Twitter.

It's a book that makes scholarship accessible to a non-academic reader. It's a book that uses the author's experiences -- as a student, as an admissions sales rep, as a teacher, as a researcher, as a black woman, as a friend and daughter -- to vividly illustrate and bring the reader into theoretical understandings of systems, policy, and economic forces. It's sociology, it's investigative journalism, it's memoir, it's a lens on something I see every day (those subway/bus ads for education). It's witty and no-nonsense.

I thought I already knew that a lot of for-profit colleges were pretty bad. McMillan Cottom shows why they exist, why they are as they are, and what it'd take to change those forces. I understand the labor market better and I am now even more against mandatory degree requirements for job candidates. I understand the US student debt crisis better and understand why it's connected to the same forces that are making healthcare and retirement worse and worse in the US. Just to quote from the first few chapters (I captured many quotes because she makes so many great points):

As it turns out, there is such a thing as "bad" education. It is an educational option that, by design, cannot increase students' odds of beating the circumstances of their birth....

...the way we work shapes what kind of credentials we produce. If we have a shitty credentialing system, in the case of for-profit colleges, then it is likely because we have a shitty labor market. To be more precise, we have a labor market where the social contract between workers and the work on which college has previously relied has fundamentally changed and makes workers vulnerable.

While there is a lot of academic debate about the extent of that change and whether it signals progress or decline, there is substantial evidence that suggests all of those changes shift new risks to workers....

Whether you are a kindergarten teacher, an admissions counselor, or a college professor, working in education is a lot like being a priest. You shepherd people's collective faith in themselves and their trust in social institutions....

Despite our shift to understanding higher education as a personal good, we have held on to the narrative of all education being inherently good and moral. Economists E. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson call this the education gospel: our faith in education as moral, personally edifying, collectively beneficial, and a worthwhile investment no matter the cost, either individual or societal....The contradiction is that we don't like to talk about higher education in terms of jobs, but rather in terms of citizenship and the public good, even when that isn't the basis of our faith....

I particularly want to recommend this book to people starting, running, working for, or affiliated with for-profit educational institutions, and yes, beyond code schools and programming bootcamps, I include the Recurse Center and other similar experiments. You may not think of yourself as an educational institution, and you may even try really hard to brand yourself without the word "educate" or any of its derivatives showing up in what you say about yourself. But you ought to know the landscape you're in, and the reasons for the credentialism you may pooh-pooh, and how your choices around accreditation, tuition, participant debt, credentialing, and vocational focus may differently affect participants of different classes and races.

I read this book in February and it's still on track to be the best book I read this year.