Review: Lower Ed, Tressie McMillan Cottom

FINALLY. Not that anyone cares,1, but my struggles to get my hands on my library’s copy of Lower Ed have spanned almost six months. If I wanted to wait six months to read a book I put on hold at the library, I’d have stayed in New York and only had a NYPL library card because BPL actually processes holds at a reasonable speed but what I’m saying is that NYPL is terrible at processing holds. And six months was too long to wait for Lower Ed. I’d have lost interest if I hadn’t been so darn interested.

Lower Ed

Lower Ed is what Tressie McMillan Cottom helpfully defines in her epilogue as an autoethnographic study, which is to say that she herself is part of the story. Cottom worked as an admission counselor (i.e., a salesperson) for two different for-profit colleges before pursuing her PhD. While researching Lower Ed, she also went through the enrollment process for nine separate for-profit colleges, to investigate the similarities and differences in the way those colleges pursued new students. She also draws on the stories of people she personally interviewed about their for-profit higher ed experiences, some of whom she knew from real life and others of whom she met along the way. Lower Ed works to understand who attends for-profit colleges and why, in the words of the people who are making those choices.

Interspersed with those stories is a wealth of contextual information about how for-profit schools operate and what kind of benefits they offer the students they work so hard to enroll. Although there’s an argument to be made that for-profit colleges are predatory — and Cottom doesn’t shrink from making it, when called to — Lower Ed presents a measured and thoughtful view of the benefits of these institutions as well as their drawbacks. Yes, they spend more on marketing than on instruction. Yes, they target financially and socially vulnerable students and heavily pressure them to take on large amounts of loan debt in search of a future that may never materialize.

However, as Cottom points out, the more “legitimate” version of higher education — such as prestigious public and private universities — leave those very students behind. Poor students, older students, first-generation students, and others lack the experience and time to successfully navigate bureaucratic barriers to entering more traditional higher ed settings.

One of the main points that Cottom brings up over and over again is a thing I am constantly having to remind myself about: However impactful individual choices may be, they still count for very little when set against the institutional forces that guide and control so much of our lives. Cottom notes:

What is interesting to me is how much disdain is spread among students and schools and how little disdain there is for labor markets.

Cottom argues that companies invest less and less in workforce development while individuals are asked to invest more and more, spending money they don’t have in an attempt to meet an ever-shifting standard of employability.

Lower Ed is a short book that packs a big punch; it’s left me with a lot to chew on, both about higher education and about the many many FRANKLY INFINITY ways society finds to reproduce inequality. So, you know. Fun thoughts to think.

  1. Because it is very boring