Lower Ed

by Tressie McMillan Cottom

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

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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 universities.

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 competitor.

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 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 foundation.

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

Last modified and spun 2020-10-10