V Books: Prof. Tressie Cottom Examines For-Profit Colleges And Their Promotion of Inequality In New Book ‘Lower Ed’


There isn’t a concrete definition for the all-too-elusive American Dream. Ideas of this material utopia have different meanings to different people. Nevertheless, this U.S. fantasy has been heavily promoted by self-aggrandizing business and political leaders since America’s inception. From slave masters promising non-slave owners that they could become planters–owners of twenty or more slaves–to for-profit colleges targeting vulnerable young adults to enroll into their institutions, the promise of wealth has made a lot of pockets fat with cash.

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Yes, education can offer lucrative positions in the workforce, if you’re lucky enough to find a job, but to a single mother/college student with a mailbox overflowing with past due notices, chances are slim that she’ll finish college. Paying rent, or taking care of sick children will always trump paying college tuition or studying for a test. Now it can be done, but some people, due to the former circumstances, may fall short.

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According to Prof. Tressie Cottom, assistant professor of sociology and author of Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, revenue seeking colleges i.e., University of Phoenix, ITT Technical Institute, and Everest, to name a few, cunningly promote the slippery American Dream by targeting financially crippled, and non-traditional students. A majority of marginalized students who enroll in for-profit colleges do not finish as a result of children, bills, finances, and family emergencies. With this, for-profit colleges pocket money garnered from financial aid with each enrolled student. Cottom also argues that for-profit colleges advance inequality by preying on the vulnerability of the poor.

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Lower Ed is also an invitation to people to organize and make community over these issues. We deserve more from our policymakers, civic organizations and educators,” Prof. Cottom says to VIBE.

To give an idea of how much cash for-profit colleges are bringing in, Charles Edelstein, co-CEO of Apollo Group, a higher education company that offers online and on-campus degrees through the University of Phoenix, brought home more than $11 million in 2010. Meanwhile, Princeton University’s president earned a salary of $948,412 in 2014, according to the Huffington Post.

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We caught up with Prof. Cottom, who was once a recruiter at two for-profit colleges, for a brief discussion on Lower Ed.

VIBE: What’s the message that you want to get across with Lower Ed?
Tressie Cottom: Lower Ed is about how we can do everything right — go to school, work hard, have high aspirations — and still not achieve the American dream. The purpose of Lower Ed is to create with people a new language to talk about education in a way that does not assume “all school is good school.” Some education can leave you worse off than you began. That does not mean you are a failure or that you did not try hard but that the risks were always so great and your odds of overcoming them so low that the deck was stacked against you. Lower Ed is also about showing that black women, who are disproportionately enrolled in risky higher education programs, are not stupid for choosing them. We are always making the very best out of some very bad circumstances.

Were there students that you encountered that inspired your research? If so, can you briefly explain their experience with for-profit colleges?
Yes, I worked with many students during my tenure as a recruiter in for-profit colleges. Later, I interviewed over 100 students as a researcher doing academic work on how and why for-profit colleges are so popular with some students. All of my students inspired me to get the data and the story right. In particular, the frustration that students expressed over and over again at having to go to college even though they had work experience or little financial means to do so really stuck with me. As one sister put it, “what the f*ck am I supposed to do?!” She was right. There was not a good low-risk option available to her in the way she needed it. Figuring out why that is the case for millions of people doing everything right inspired my research.

Can you describe some problems with for-profit colleges?
They are not just expensive and arguably low-quality. That can be true of lots of not-for-profit traditional colleges, too. Instead, the real problem with for-profit colleges is that they are risky. And they are risky because we have allowed them to fill the gaps in our social policy when instead we should have invested in improving job quality, access to childcare, and low-cost workforce training. More concretely, students who enroll in for-profit colleges are more likely to drop out and when they do to carry more debt than they would have if they had attended a traditional program. They are less likely to gain access to the cultural and social capital that makes it more likely that they will procure better jobs if and when they graduate. Students with for-profit college credits struggle to transfer them to other institutions and can become trapped in attending one for-profit college after another to finish their degrees or advance their educations. And for-profit college graduates see negligible positive impact to their earnings, on average. Given how expensive for-profit colleges are, how much student loan debt students take out to attend them, how likely those students are to default on that debt because their degrees or educations don’t increase their earnings, for-profit colleges are a social problem that needs to be solved.

What type of students do these schools target and how often do these students stay in school?
These schools target students who have more educational aspiration than they do practical means to achieve their educational goals. We know intuitively who those students are: women of color, poorer students, first generation students, and women generally. But to best understand who for-profit colleges target we can look at how they spend their advertising money. In one year for-profit colleges were the top online ad buyer with search engines like Google. Their target terms to identify prospective students? “Unemployment insurance.” For-profit colleges target those who are most vulnerable to layoffs, shutdowns, low wages and poor job prospects.

Are these colleges accredited and what type of jobs are students prepared to do once they graduate from for-profit colleges?

Any college that offers federal student aid is accredited. So, yes, most of them are accredited and I only study accredited for-profit colleges in my research.

What role, if any, do politicians play at these schools?
Most politicians do not go looking for problems to solve. As long as there isn’t a crisis in for-profit higher education, politicians from both sides of the aisle are happy to let for-profit colleges do their thing. However, for-profit college lobbyists make significant investment in politicians to shape their willingness to see for-profit colleges as a problem. Most politicians have a hands-off approach and, at most, will say that there are some “bad actors” in an otherwise valuable sector. I argue that the sector, by definition, is functionally bad because it only makes money when citizens are vulnerable and take on debt.

In your opinion, what does for-profit colleges say about education in America?
It says that we have not reckoned with the reality of what globalization and inequality have done to our society. We do not have the political will to solve what academics sometimes call “wicked problems”. These are the really sticky, big social problems that seem to just get worse the more we poke at them. They are like global warming and the prison industrial complex. These are sprawling problems with tentacles reaching into every aspect of our lives. Without the political will to tackle what it means when going to school can actually make your life worse rather than better, we are writing off a generation of social mobility and well-being. The American Dream, to the extent that it was every real for most Americans, is well and truly dead with education is a bad bet to make.

What other projects are you currently working on?
I am working on documenting black life in the digital society. My team of mostly student researchers are building on this research about higher education as a bad bet for so many African Americans to think about how our most deeply held convictions about racial inequality are upended with technology makes it so easy to target, track, and prey on black people’s aspirations. I am also working on a new book about black women public intellectuals. It is a collection of essays spanning my writing on pop culture, Barack Obama, Ta-Nehisi Coates among other topics. Basically, my next project is always the same: wreck shop and change the world.

Lower Ed can be purchased by heading over to Amazon.com now.

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