Review: Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Hi! It’s been a while since I reviewed a book, or really posted anything on this website. I’ve been reading a ton of books recently though, and writing reviews is about all I can manage to write these days, so look forward to more of these over the next few months! Should be one each week, posted every Friday, just like the old days.

Cover courtesy of The New Press

Lower Ed is a non-fiction book about the rise of a new class of for-profit colleges—distinct from the old “mom and pop” for-profits—which operate as major investment vehicles and seek to capitalize on the ever-increasing demand for credentials, and the inability of American higher education or employers to meet it. There are a couple dominant narratives around for-profit colleges, which Tressie McMillan Cottom outlines. A) They are predatory institutions which exploit disadvantaged students (part and parcel with this is a view that these students are dupes); or B) They are a savvy, private response to the failure of public institutions to train workers for our modern labor market. McMillan Cottom avoids both of these oversimplifications, instead examining the ways in which all of these institutions and economic entities—the labor market, public universities, and for-profits—are contributing to a precarity, a risk shift, which is profitable for damn near everyone involved except the students/workers.

I will move past summary eventually, I swear, but these are some complex, rich ideas, so I’ve got to explain a bit more. “Risk shift” is something McMillan Cottom talks about a lot. Over the past few decades, risk has shifted away from the government and private employers, and onto individuals. What risk? Well, say you want to be a lawyer. You are taking a risk in going to law school, investing time and money that may not be returned to you (if, for example, no one hires you.) Say you’re an employer, looking for someone to be a barista. If you hire someone with no experience, and train them, you are risking that that time and pay will not return to you (say, for example, they leave the instant they get good at baristaing.) In the past, employers were more willing to take on that risk, providing on-the-job training and investing resources in keeping their employees by providing them advancement and, potentially, further education. This is less and less the case. While a café may still take you on with no experience, more desirable jobs are likely to require experience up front. If they do take you on and spend time training you, they’ll minimize their risk by not paying you—hence that hateful practice, the unpaid internship. Our government has also, more and more, foisted risk onto individuals (perhaps in the belief that the job market is what it was in the 60s, with employers willing to share risk with their employees.) State and federal funding for higher education has not kept pace with demand, and so tuition costs have ballooned. Total student loan debt has increased by 389.5% since 2003, now over $1,500,000,000,000. $1 trillion and $500 billion, to be clear. That is risk shift.

So, this book is about for-profit colleges, but McMillan Cottom does not frame them as vicious wolves that prowled onto the scene from some dark den, and that must be hunted down. She looks at the whole ecosystem. By closely examining these for-profits and the students who attend them, she uncovers realities about the labor market, about the education system, about the narratives around college which push people towards or away from it. She identifies for-profit colleges as a focal point for understanding “Lower Ed,” which is the more profound subject of the book. Lower Ed, a term of McMillan Cottom’s coinage, is any of a vast scope of insufficient responses to the needs of people who cannot access Higher Ed (or, perhaps, cannot access the supposed guarantee of Higher Ed—you could say that if you take on $60,000 of debt to attend a prestigious public university, that is still Lower Ed.) In her own words, “When we offer more credentials in lieu of a stronger social contract, it is Lower Ed. When we ask for social insurance and get workforce training, it is Lower Ed. When we ask for justice and get opportunity, it is Lower Ed.”

So that’s a rough summary of what this book is about, but I hope it also serves as a demonstration of the richness of McMillan Cottom’s thought and analysis. This is not a book interested in affirming the reader’s preconceived notions about for-profit colleges. This is a book that wants to look at the grand, complex truth.

And it’s a testament to McMillan Cottom’s skill that that complexity is so readable. Her prose is thorough and precise. She fills potential gaps in comprehension with careful explanations, references to previous scholarship, and data. No words are wasted. She is never in a rush, and never satisfied with leaving an idea to stand merely on the merits of its cuteness, novelty, or truthy feeling. Any argument worth presenting is worth defending in full—or, in some cases, interrogating, complicating. Honestly, this book feels like a gold standard for scholarly non-fiction, both in its substance and in its crystal-clear style.

The richness of that substance is built from very granular research. McMillan Cottom uses interviews with students, posts from message boards, and her own experience as an enrollment officer for two for-profit colleges. This makes for engaging reading, with narrative sections interspersed among the more rhetorical/historical sections, but it also helps so much to understand the situation McMillan Cottom is describing. For-profit colleges are difficult to study because, while many have immense data-collection apparatuses tracking potential and current students, they don’t have an obligation to disclose those statistics the way public universities do. The sections describing McMillan Cottom’s personal experience as an enrollment officer—and, later, her experience posing as a prospective student for several for-profits—are crucial to understanding the culture, the institutional psychology, that drives these for-profits to act the way they do.

The same goes for her interviews with students. These people are not dupes, and they are making practical decisions based on economic needs, dominant narratives about college, and their firsthand experience with the labor market. That’s complex stuff that would be hard to tease apart with a survey. The qualitative approach of in-depth interviews is not just to put a human face on these broad trends; though it does that too, its greater function is to deepen the reader’s understanding of what exactly Lower Ed is.

As a final high mark of praise, I can say that this book re-contextualized, and helped me understand, my own experiences with college and the “shitty labor market” I am in now. Anyone can see that public universities are failing us. Anyone can see that for-profit colleges are self-interested. What McMillan Cottom achieves is a vision of our economy, our education system, our cultural conception of college, that punches through those obvious truths and into the deeper complexity that has lain there all along. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is in college, or “college-age” but not in college, or just graduated, or anyone who is contending with this antagonizing, anti-human labor market. I listened to it on audiobook, narrated by Lisa Reneé Pitts, and can definitely recommend that as well. Her deliberate, measured cadence is a perfect match for McMillan Cottom’s cool prose.

And when you finish this book, David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs is a nice follow-up. I read Bullshit Jobs last year, and while listening to Lower Ed I found the two books had a lot to say to one another.

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