Lower Ed | Tressie McMillan Cottom

Summary of: Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy
By: Tressie McMillan Cottom


The realm of higher education has experienced an intriguing shift with the growth of for-profit colleges. These institutions, such as the well-known University of Phoenix and smaller mom-and-pop operations, focus on preparing students for specific jobs while providing them with essential credentials. Despite their allure, these colleges have faced scrutiny and criticism; many view them as perpetuating systemic inequalities and offering little social contribution. In the book ‘Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy,’ Tressie McMillan Cottom takes a deep dive into the dynamics, expansions, and implications of for-profit colleges and how they fit into the larger scope of higher education.

Understanding For-Profit Colleges

For-profit colleges offer certificate and degree programs for specific job goals and rely heavily on federal student aid. These institutions are organized to commodify social inequalities and lack the social contributions of traditional higher education. Author Tressie McMillan Cottom, a former enrollment officer at a for-profit college, calls this phenomenon “Lower Ed.” The growth of for-profit colleges in the 1990s brought corporate public ownership, but they remain under private ownership, mostly in the form of family businesses. While for-profit colleges offer workforce training and opportunity, they do not provide social insurance or justice, and are a product of persistent public policy choices that perpetuate wealth inequalities.

The Business Behind For-Profit Colleges

Millions of people enroll in for-profit colleges to develop new skills and transition into new careers. For-profit colleges use well-crafted ads and attractive pitches to lure prospective students. Students often make the hasty decision to enroll without considering alternative options or having access to relevant data. For-profit colleges perpetuate economic and social inequalities, and their business models thrive on this divide.

For-Profit Colleges and the Complexities of Enrollment

The demographics of the for-profit college sector show that students are older, poorer, and more likely to be non-white and female compared to traditional colleges. However, this sector is not a single entity as different types of for-profit schools cater to students with varying social and economic backgrounds. For-profit colleges’ straightforward enrollment processes appeal to students with lower social status and those living in education deserts. In contrast, higher status students find the flexibility and proximity to be the defining factors for enrollment. Despite their appeal, for-profit colleges face issues of prestige and credit transferability, among others. Ultimately, this book section highlights the complexities in for-profit colleges’ enrollment practices and how they intersect with students’ motivations, expectations, and social connections.

The For-Profit Education Sales Game

For-profit schools prioritize profits over student success, with enrollment officers solely focused on making sales, not advising students. The system incentivizes enrolling new students at all costs, often pushing them towards high-interest loans without fully disclosing the relationship between lenders and the school’s parent company. With the decrease of private student loans in 2008, schools relied on these deceptive tactics to make up for lost revenue. As a result, students are left with mountains of debt and no viable path to success.

ITT Technical Institute’s Financial Practices Exposed

ITT Technical Institute, a popular educational chain in the US, was investigated by the government for deceiving investors about their financial practices. The school guaranteed the debt of a private student loan lender named PEAKS without revealing their financial ties. When students couldn’t afford tuition, they were referred to PEAKS, allowing them to use federal aid for the remainder of their school costs while still adhering to federal regulations. Over 97% of for-profit college certificate candidates pay tuition using federal student aid.

The Growth of For-Profit Colleges in the US

The US “social contract” underwent four “characteristic changes” that led to the growth of for-profit colleges: job mobility, labor flexibility, declining internal labor markets, and risk shift. For-profit colleges expanded higher education, with almost 30% of students attending from 2000 to 2010. However, most students who enroll don’t graduate, and there is a lack of reliable data on their educational or career paths. Despite this, “up-market degrees” – higher-level degrees layered on lower ones – are growing faster than any other sector of credentialing. For-profit college success highlights large systemic failures.

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