Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy

There was a moment near the end of reading Tressie McMillan Cottom's Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges In The New Economy where I had to stop and adjust my thinking.  I went into this book expecting to learn, but I also went in looking for good guys and bad guys.  It's easy enough to find bad guys in the for-profit infrastructure, and Lower Ed has stories (and data! The stories in this book carefully illustrate real data!) of aggressive marketing techniques, and references the financialization of the for-profit industry, so I'd been able to find villains, but Lower Ed wasn't leaving me with the sense of righteous vindication I'd hoped for.  Most of the people working for for-profit colleges profiled in Lower Ed are well-intentioned, and the students in Lower Ed are not simply low-information attendees who've been bilked by a system.  I cried at some of the stories, but Lower Ed rigorously insists that the students at for-profit colleges are making reasonable decisions while constrained by their circumstances (the intersections of race, class and gender are thoroughly explored throughout this book).  I'd fallen into a trap that Tressie points out in the book - my narrative of for-profit colleges was that "for-profit colleges designed and executed the biggest con (on a few million people) seen in quite some time."  It took me a while to come to the conclusion spelled out in the epilogue that this narrative takes agency away from the very real people who attend for-profit colleges, which prepared me for the story actually spelled out at the end of Lower Ed.

What's wonderful about Lower Ed is that almost immediately after realizing that the narrative I was expecting had some problems, the book began drawing out the connections between inequality, lack of employer development, and the fetishization of credentials and higher education degrees that trapped many of the millions of people who attended for-profit colleges.  At a structural level, the data in Lower Ed led me to a specific set of questions, then answered them, directing me to another set of questions, and finally to the account spelled out at the end of the book, that a whole series of economic, political, and ideological factors led to increasing inequality, "especially for women, minorities, and minority women".  That in the past we have responded to massive shifts in labor and economic prospects with political and social solutions, but in this case we have instead abdicated any responsibility to the market, which filled in gaps with for-profit colleges.  The colleges here are "more complicated than big, evil con artists.  They are an indicator of social and economic inequalities, and at the same time, are perpetuators of those inequalities."  To the extent that there are bad actors in this story, our collective inability to grapple with widening inequality and its predictable consequences and traditional colleges unwilling to adapt to students who need different educational support are implicated as much as the for-profit colleges that developed aggressive marketing techniques to enroll increasing numbers of students in an attempt to meet the insatiable demands of shareholders.

I storified a bunch of my early reactions to Lower Ed, which you can check here, or embedded at the bottom of this post.  If you're considering Lower Ed, I'd highly recommend it.  Three great strengths of the book are how well it situates the story of for-profit colleges in the broader events of the last decades - this is not a story told in the abstract, but embedded in our recent history.  Secondly, the analytic framework needed to follow along is clearly spelled out, as when the theory of credentialism is defined in order to illuminate "the arguably counterintuitive decisions people make."  Finally, the data and theories in Lower Ed are illustrated with the stories of individuals, sometimes heartbreaking but always illuminating, and (to borrow from Roxane Gay's blurb) "In Lower Ed, McMillan Cottom is at her very best - rigorous, incisive, empathetic, and witty".  It's impossible to read Lower Ed without remembering that for-profit colleges are attended by real people - the book is at it's best when humanizing the "poor and minority students disproportionately enrolled in for-profit colleges", and the choices that they have found themselves presented with in a time of widening inequality, reduced support from employers, increased emphasis on higher education credentials, and a lack of any coherent political or social response to these trends.

This not-a-review isn't particularly coherent, unlike Lower Ed, which is always carefully written at the level of sentences, chapters, and through the entire book.  If you're considering Lower Ed, or if you're at all interested in education, inequality, or the intersections of race, class and gender please go and read it.  I think I'm writing this as a reminder to myself (and any other potential readers), that if, like me, you approach the book wondering "why do people go to 'those' schools", you should be aware that the question is "so clunky, so laden with embedded assumptions, anxieties, and projections".  There are simple stories to be told about for-profit colleges and the students that attend them, and politicians can get themselves elected by offering solutions to those stories, while Wall Street executives keep making money.  But there's also a more nuanced story, one with more complicated solutions (though solutions that we all can, and probably must, participate in!), and understanding that story is a lot more likely to help the people trapped in the social, economic, and political trends spelled out in Lower Ed.  I'm incredibly grateful to Tressie McMillan Cottom for this book, the reminder that a simple story is more likely to serve someone's agenda than actually solve problems, and the reminder that the sometimes abstract numbers cited when making public policy represent real people and real stories.