Reading _Lower Ed_: Credentials, Jobs, and the New Economy

We continue our reading of Tressie McMillan Cottom‘s Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy (publisher; Amazon). Here we’ll discuss Chapter 6, “Credentials, Jobs, and the New Economy.”

I’ll begin with a short summary, followed by questions.  As a quick reminder, you can find all posts in this reading right here.

Chapter 6, “Credentials, Jobs, and the New Economy.”

Lower Ed being heldHere Cottom continues to explore reasons why people would enroll in for-profit colleges, focusing on the context of a new labor market.

The author returns to her earlier theme: that for-profits target poor people, shown, for example, by the connection between government assistance programs and for-profits (157-8).  Poverty’s constraints on decision-making and choices further nudge people into lower ed (163).  The labor market’s demand that individuals, rather than companies, provide education further encourages such enrollment: “the expectation now is that workers will increase their human capital at personal expense to ‘move up’ the professional ladder” by developing their own “negative insurance program[s]” (168, 174).

Ultimately, such educational choices aren’t really choices at all, given the options (170).

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 The world of higher education

assumes that there is a rational educational choice that can be made.  Given the character of the new economy, one that by definition is risky and highly variable, for millions of people that simply isn’t true.

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In this context, for-profits ultimately fail people.  “At best, Lowed Ed marginally serves a few individuals…

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” (177)

Job placement data and regulatory compliance seems to argue in favor of for-profits, as they share federal data about jobs and degrees.  However, there is room to fudge or creatively represent that data (164-5; 166-7).  Moreover, better data or more firmly established provenance seems likely to have had no impact on enrollment decisions (170).

Throughout this chapter Cottom compares for-profits to community colleges.  Both can address similar populations, at times offering related outcomes (rapid credentialing for jobs), and both coming in for job placement rate criticism.  However, regulation seems to be tighter on for-profits, which are also powered by Wall Street investment (165-6, for example).

This chapter concludes with considerations not just of recent history, but of possible futures.

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 Cottom thinks for-profits met a need, and unless that need changes, some other entity will step in to meet it:

If for-profit colleges like ITT are no longer around, then another form of short-term on-demand credentials will respond to consumer demand by extracting profit from student loans and education savings accounts.  That’s the best-case scenario. [emphases added] (172)

Inequality is likely to continue, with academia playing a major role:

The proposed future of higher education looks a lot like the start of the Wall Street era of for-profit college expansion: occupational credentials in narrow fields, paid for through public financing schemes that start with exemplars of high-status white men in high-pay jobs and offer little hope for anyone else. (177)


  1. Professor Cottom brings coding boot camps into play (175).  Do you see them as part of the for-profit world, or are they another kind of thing?
  2. Would a non-profit college or university’s online learning offerings better help the people for-profits have preyed on?
  3. Can non-profits expand in general, on-line or off-, to better serve poor Americans?

Next Monday, June 26, we move on to the book’s epilogue.

Our reading so far: the plan; introduction; chapter 1; chapter 2; chapter 3; chapter 4; chapter 5.


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2 Responses to Reading _Lower Ed_: Credentials, Jobs, and the New Economy

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    ICYMI catch up with reading and discussing Tressie McMillan Cottom’s #LowcrEd with Bryan Alexander’s FTTE Book Club. Haven’t adjuncted at a for-profit (most likely online)? You still can’t miss sometimes disturbing parallels (and contrasts) with community colleges.

  2. Pingback: Concluding _Lower Ed_: the epilogue | Bryan Alexander

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