All Credentials Aren’t Created Equal

Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy
by Tressie McMillan Cottom
New Press, 2017
256 pages

Lower Ed is sociology at its best: it questions popular wisdom and provides a better explanation. Tressie McMillan Cottom uses for-profit colleges to explain a much bigger story about contemporary patterns of inequality. But don’t let her clarity of writing deceive you: Cottom’s work demands close reading and careful thinking. Every few pages offer counter-commonsense arguments with telescoping corollaries and implications. What Cottom calls “Lower Ed” is not a moral aberration but a response to terrible labor market conditions (the real problem) and a symptom of how ill-prepared we are to address them. If followed to its conclusion, Cottom’s argument threatens to bring down our academic house of cards.

Cottom’s book is invaluable as a study of for-profit colleges. Awareness of the category of non-profits is low—whenever I ask my students if they know about for-profit colleges, I get blank stares (even students who attend for-profits are unfamiliar with the term, Cottom reveals). For-profit schools dress up expensive degrees with titles suggesting future job prospects, like “healthcare” for a massage therapist certification, or “technology” training to rewire household appliances. Cottom cites a recent field experiment finding that for-profits produce as much name recognition for employers as made-up school names. While for-profits provide questionable advantages to students, most of their profits derive from federal money: a 2012 Senate report estimated for-profits collected $32 billion of taxpayer money that year. That means for-profits, with their higher default rates and lower completion rates, play a big role in the slow-brewing crisis of student debt, now topping $1 trillion.

Yet this book goes beyond the descriptive (“the questions of what,” as Cottom puts it on p. 29) to understand Lower Ed’s social function: a harder, more important task. Cottom connects individual-level motivations and needs—like meeting welfare requirements, needing student loan refund checks and job stability, and the desire to better oneself—to organizational-level strategies to “close” the sale, taking advantage of institutional-level labor market conditions and educational policy, including the apparatus of federal student loans. Importantly, Cottom rejects easy condescension toward for-profit students to show how Lower Ed meets immediate needs and provides access to people for whom time and access are precious resources. Rather than focusing on students’ choices as problematic, Cottom employs credentialing theory to understand how for-profits function in the larger economy: “What if students end up in Lower Ed not because of who they are, but because of how the new economy is changing how we work?“ (65). Cottom shows how internally, the for-profit industry knows it is profitable because of larger economic failures.

Cottom’s book is also a methodological intervention: when a system changes, “that means departing from the methods that we developed to study previous systems and processes to make sure they still measure what we think they measure” (67). Researchers tend to study slower-moving subjects or subjects close to hand; that is, the schools where we work. But Cottom draws on her own experience as an admissions counselor (or “enrollment officer” or “sales force” member) at two for-profit institutions (identified as only the Beauty College and the Technical College), and broadens the scope of her study to include over a hundred interviews with students; an examination of SEC filing reports and biographies of for-profit and non-profit school heads; a conference she convened for both non-profit and for-profit education representatives; and her own enrollment in nine for-profits as a potential student. Cottom even triangulates her data with for-profits’ research on themselves, conducted to better target their marketing efforts. (I especially liked how Cottom flipped the schools’ interviewing process into a site for data collection and her chapter-by-chapter methodological notes.)

Cottom convincingly shows we have created the conditions for Lower Ed to thrive, from increased employer demands for “flexibility” and self-training through credentialing, the end of “welfare as we know it,” our student loan system, and high unemployment. In one telling passage, Cottom notes that for-profits see employers as competitors for their business—they prefer a high unemployment rate and high inequality. Against many economists, Cottom argues Lower Ed’s exponential growth comes from an ideological shift, not deregulation: from college as a “public trust” to a personal investment (133). With responsibility for training and financing foisted onto individuals, Lower Ed students are exhorted to better themselves through education, then blamed for doing it the “wrong way”. But Lower Ed is a monster we have created, feeding on inequality we have also created. For instance, Cottom’s framing of Lower Ed (pursued most often by Black women) as a “shitty credential” links to a larger literature on gender and work elaborating how female-typed jobs require increasing credentials. Nursing, for instance, has not gained prestige even as its job prerequisites are inflating. The relatively flat career ladders in women’s work provides ripe opportunities for Lower Ed: women must attain more education at each stage to “qualify” for a higher-status position, whereas men can just get promoted. (Cottom gives the example of Janice, a Black nurse who is pursuing a degree—possibly even a PhD—to try to ensure she won’t be relocated.)

Some people will start reading this book feeling pity for students duped into an obvious scam, but by the end of Cottom’s book it’s clear that academics need to get our own house in order. As Cottom notes of her own trajectory from admissions counselor at a for-profit to a tenure-track job in a “real” school, she has gone from being an evangelist to a “priest” (6) for the education gospel, in which all education is “good.” Cottom concludes “we are all complicit” (132) in proselytizing this education gospel. The fact that outcomes are good for individual people within that system (i.e., Harvard Law grads) is the selling point justifying everybody else’s engagement in the system. The agitation within Higher Ed about “those” (for-profit) schools not being “real” schools is anxiety about contagion and boundary-drawing. Cottom shows how Higher Ed’s morally clean reputation sustains Lower Ed by association.

Our blindness to the relationship between Lower Ed, Higher Ed, and the labor market comes from our standpoint in the heart of academia. Although social scientists have made a career of studying and evaluating others, they don’t generally subject their own choices about jobs, earnings, or likelihood of success to the same scrutiny. Even those studying stratification participate every day in minute delineations of those strata, as gatekeepers maintaining the “prestige,” “ranking,” or “competitiveness” of our own institution. As a group selected on the dependent variable of valuing (or overvaluing) education, academics assume, following the education gospel, that more education is always better, and any loan is acceptable to achieve it (at a “real” school, at least). We do not have the self-reflexive stance or the swift-moving research agenda to see what’s shifting under our own feet, even as 75% of faculty positions are now non-tenure-track. Not-for-profits are deluded about what the shifting labor market means—for-profits have recognized the opportunity.

Like few books, Cottom has made me think critically about our own role in the system as “good guys” (7) and as fellow dupes participating in “flexible” work. Cottom shows how, while students seek ever-more education to land a stable, “good” job, employers read more education as willingness to work in ever-more transient and flexible jobs. That leads to an uncomfortable conclusion: this applies to us academics. We forfeit a decade or more of earnings, often incurring significant debt, to pursue a terminal degree supposedly granting us a chance at a job that may, in six or seven years, become permanent. The job is supposed to bring us stability, but most academics conclude they “have to move wherever the job is.”

But what better job are we really forfeiting? Cottom’s biggest point is most crucial: the jobs are not there, and getting more education will not automatically lead to them. Otherwise-smart people seem to have a religious faith that the invisible hand is real in our industry—that more jobs will be created soon, just as soon as our department gets that additional line, or the Recession’s impact is over (instead of acknowledging a general shift to relying on temporary, underpaid labor). Instead, the economy only “works” (at great human and financial expense) because so many people have found ways to capitalize on the economy’s failure. We academics are so invested in our own nonsensical hiring system that we are blinded to many of the larger education market’s vagaries. We assume the students in Lower Ed have better options somewhere, but do they? Is our own long-term business strategy more serious and valid than that of those engaged in Lower Ed, or are academics just more likely to have their economic decisions protected by class (and race and gender) advantages? And how long will those advantages hold out in this economy? Luckily, Tressie McMillan Cottom is around to help us understand.