Review: Lower Ed, by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sun Sep 20 21:01:31 PDT 2020

Lower Ed
by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Publisher: The New Press
Copyright: 2017
Printing:  2018
ISBN:      1-62097-472-X
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     217

Lower Ed (subtitled The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the
New Economy) is the first book by sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom.
(I previously reviewed her second book, the excellent essay collection
Thick.) It is a deep look at the sociology of for-profit higher
education in the United States based on interviews with students and
executives, analysis of Wall Street filings, tests of the admissions
process, and her own personal experiences working for two of the
schools. One of the questions that McMillan Cottom tries to answer is
why students choose to enroll in these institutions, particularly the
newer type of institution funded by federal student loans and notorious
for being more expensive and less valuable than non-profit colleges and

I was hesitant to read this book because I find for-profit schools
depressing. I grew up with the ubiquitous commercials, watched the
backlash develop, and have a strongly negative impression of the
industry, partly influenced by having worked in traditional non-profit
higher education for two decades. The prevailing opinion in my social
group is that they're a con job. I was half-expecting a reinforcement
of that opinion by example, and I don't like reading infuriating
stories about people being defrauded.

I need not have worried. This is not that sort of book (nor, in
retrospect, do I think McMillan Cottom would approach a topic from that
angle). Sociology is broader than reporting. Lower Ed positions
for-profit colleges within a larger social structure of education,
credentialing, and changes in workplace expectations; takes a deep look
at why they are attractive to their students; and humanizes and
complicates the motives and incentives of everyone involved, including
administrators and employees of for-profit colleges as well as the
students. McMillan Cottom does of course talk about the profit motive
and the deceptions surrounding that, but the context is less that of
fraud that people are unable to see through and more a balancing of the
drawbacks of a set of poor choices embedded in institutional failures.

One of my metrics for a good non-fiction book is whether it introduces
me to a new idea that changes how I analyze the world. Lower Ed does
that twice.

The first idea is the view of higher education through the lens of risk
shifting. It used to be common for employers to hire people without
prior job-specific training and do the training in-house, possibly
through an apprenticeship structure. More notably, once one was
employed by a particular company, the company routinely arranged or
provided ongoing training. This went hand-in-hand with a workplace
culture of long tenure, internal promotion, attempts to avoid layoffs,
and some degree of mutual loyalty. Companies expected to invest
significantly in an employee over their career and thus also had an
incentive to retain that employee rather than train someone for a

However, from a purely financial perspective, this is a risk and an
inefficiency, similar to the risk of carrying a large inventory of
parts and components. Companies have responded to investor-driven focus
on profits and efficiency by reducing overhead and shifting risk. This
leads to the lean supply chain, where no one pays for parts to sit
around in warehouses and companies aren't caught with large stockpiles
of now-useless components, but which is more sensitive to any
disruption (such as from a global pandemic). And, for employment, it
leads to a desire to hire pre-trained workers, retain only enough
workers to do the current amount of work, and replace them with new
workers who already have appropriate training rather than retrain them.

The effect of the corporate decision to only hire pre-trained employees
is to shift the risk and expense of training from the company to the
prospective employee. The individual has to seek out training at their
own expense in the hope (not guarantee) that at the conclusion of that
training they will get or retain a job. People therefore turn to higher
education to both provide that training and to help them decide what
type of training will eventually be valuable. This has a long history
with certain professional fields (doctors and lawyers, for example),
but the requirements for completing training in those fields are
relatively clear (a professional license to practice) and the
compensation reflects the risk. What's new is the shift of training
risk to the individual in more mundane jobs, without any corresponding
increase in compensation.

This, McMillan Cottom explains, is the background for the growth in
demand for higher education in general and the the type of education
offered by for-profit colleges in particular. Workers who in previous
eras would be trained by their employers are now responsible for their
own training. That training is no longer judged by the standards of a
specific workplace, but is instead evaluated by a hiring process that
expects constant job-shifting. This leads to increased demand by both
workers and employers for credentials: some simple-to-check certificate
of completion of training that says that this person has the skills to
immediately start doing some job. It also leads to a demand for more
flexible class hours, since the student is now often someone older with
a job and a family to balance. Their ongoing training used to be
considered a cost of business and happen during their work hours; now
it is something they have to fit around the contours of their life
because their employer has shifted that risk to them.

The risk-shifting frame makes sense of the "investment" language so
common in for-profit education. In this job economy, education as
investment is not a weird metaphor for the classic benefits of a
liberal arts education: broadened perspective, deeper grounding in
philosophy and ethics, or heightened aesthetic appreciation. It's an
investment in the literal financial sense; it is money that you spend
now in order to get a financial benefit (a job) in the future. People
have to invest in their own training because employers are no longer
doing so, but still require the outcome of that investment. And, worse,
it's primarily a station-keeping investment. Rather than an optional
expenditure that could reap greater benefits later, it's a mandatory
expenditure to prevent, at best, stagnation in a job paying poverty
wages, and at worst the disaster of unemployment.

This explains renewed demand for higher education, but why for-profit
colleges? We know they cost more and have a worse reputation (and
therefore their credentials have less value) than traditional
non-profit colleges. Flexible hours and class scheduling explains some
of this but not all of it. That leads to the second
perspective-shifting idea I got from Lower Ed: for-profit colleges are
very good at what they focus time and resources on, and they focus on
enrolling students.

It is hard to enroll in a university! More precisely, enrolling in a
university requires bureaucracy navigation skills, and those skills are
class-coded. The people who need them the most are the least likely to
have them.

Universities do not reach out to you, nor do they guide you through the
process. You have to go to them and discover how to apply, something
that is often made harder by the confusing state of many university web
sites. The language and process is opaque unless other people in your
family have experience with universities and can explain it. There
might be someone you can reach on the phone to ask questions, but
they're highly unlikely to proactively guide you through the remaining
steps. It's your responsibility to understand deadlines, timing, and
sequence of operations, and if you miss any of the steps (due to, for
example, the overscheduled life of someone in need of better education
for better job prospects), the penalty in time and sometimes money can
be substantial. And admission is just the start; navigating financial
aid, which most students will need, is an order of magnitude more
daunting. Community colleges are somewhat easier (and certainly
cheaper) than universities, but still have similar obstacles (and often
even worse web sites).

It's easy for people like me, who have long professional expertise with
bureaucracies, family experience with higher education, and a support
network of people to nag me about deadlines, to underestimate this. But
the application experience at a for-profit college is entirely
different in ways far more profound than I had realized. McMillan
Cottom documents this in detail from her own experience working for two
different for-profit colleges and from an experiment where she
indicated interest in multiple for-profit colleges and then stopped
responding before signing admission paperwork. A for-profit college is
fully invested in helping a student both apply and get financial aid,
devotes someone to helping them through that process, does not expect
them to understand how to navigate bureaucracies or decipher forms on
their own, does not punish unexpected delays or missed appointments,
and goes to considerable lengths to try to keep anyone from falling out
of the process before they are enrolled. They do not expect their
students to already have the skills that one learns from working in
white-collar jobs or from being surrounded by people who do. They
provide the kind of support that an educational institution should
provide to people who, by definition, don't understand something and
need to learn.

Reading about this was infuriating. Obviously, this effort to help
people enroll is largely for predatory reasons. For-profit schools make
their money off federal loans and they don't get that money unless they
can get someone to enroll and fill out financial paperwork (and to some
extent keep them enrolled), so admissions is their cash cow and they
act accordingly. But that's not why I found it infuriating; that's just
predictable capitalism. What I think is inexcusable is that nothing
they do is that difficult. We could being doing the same thing for
prospective community college students but have made the societal
choice not to. We believe that education is valuable, we constantly
advocate that people get more job training and higher education, and
yet we demand prospective students navigate an unnecessarily baroque
and confusing application process with very little help, and then
stereotype and blame them for failing to do so.

This admission support is not a question of resources. For-profit
colleges are funded almost entirely by federally-guaranteed student
loans. We are paying them to help people apply. It is, in McMillan
Cottom's term, a negative social insurance program. Rather than
buffering people against the negative effects of risk-shifting of
employers by helping them into the least-expensive and most-effective
training programs (non-profit community colleges and universities), we
are spending tax dollars to enrich the shareholders of for-profit
colleges while underfunding the alternatives. We are choosing to create
a gap that routes government support to the institution that provides
worse training at higher cost but is very good at helping people apply.
It's as if the unemployment system required one to use payday lenders
to get one's unemployment check.

There is more in this book I want to talk about, but this review is
already long enough. Suffice it to say that McMillan Cottom's analysis
does not stop with market forces and the admission process, and the
parts of her analysis that touch on my own personal experience as
someone with a somewhat unusual college path ring very true. Speaking
as a former community college student, the discussion of class credit
transfer policies and the way that institutional prestige gatekeeping
and the desire to push back against low-quality instruction becomes a
trap that keeps students in the for-profit system deserves another
review this length. So do the implications of risk-shifting and
credentialism on the morality of "cheating" on schoolwork.

As one would expect from the author of the essay "Thick" about bringing
context to sociology, Lower Ed is personal and grounded. McMillan
Cottom doesn't shy away from including her own experiences and being
explicit about her sources and research. This is backed up by one of
the best methodological notes sections I've seen in a book. One of the
things I love about McMillan Cottom's writing is that it's solidly
academic, not in the sense of being opaque or full of jargon (the text
can be a bit dense, but I rarely found it hard to follow), but in the
sense of being clear about the sources of knowledge and her methods of
extrapolation and analysis. She brings her receipts in a refreshingly
concrete way.

I do have a few caveats. First, I had trouble following a structure and
line of reasoning through the whole book. Each individual point is
meticulously argued and supported, but they are not always organized
into a clear progression or framework. That made Lower Ed feel at times
like a collection of high-quality but somewhat unrelated observations
about credentials, higher education, for-profit colleges, their student
populations, their business models, and their relationships with
non-profit schools.

Second, there are some related topics that McMillan Cottom touches on
but doesn't expand sufficiently for me to be certain I understood them.
One of the big ones is credentialism. This is apparently a hot topic in
sociology and is obviously important to this book, but it's referenced
somewhat glancingly and was not satisfyingly defined (at least for me).
There are a few similar places where I almost but didn't quite follow a
line of reasoning because the book structure didn't lay enough

Caveats aside, though, this was meaty, thought-provoking, and
eye-opening, and I'm very glad that I read it. This is a topic that I
care more about than most people, but if you have watched for-profit
colleges with distaste but without deep understanding, I highly
recommend Lower Ed.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-09-20


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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