Reading _Lower Ed_: "Jesus is my Backup Plan"

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 three, “Jesus is my backup plan.”

I’ll begin with a short summary, followed by questions.

As a quick reminder, you can find all posts in this reading right here.

Before we get started, two quick notes.  First, Tressie McMillan Cottom will be a guest on the Future Trends Forum this week.  That’s this Thursday, 2-3 pm EDT.  Second, here’s another good review/reaction to the book (thanks to Vanessa Vaile).

Lower Ed being heldChapter Three: Jesus is my Backup Plan 

This chapter explores the motivations of students who enroll at for-profits.  It is structured as a series of interviews or biographical sketches with exemplary people.

Mike is a go-getter, a hustler energetically seeking to boost his economic status, and “an education success story” (70-87).  A Morehouse Man, he hopes to use his student loan refund check to power his entrepreneurial dreams (71).  That hustle includes succeeding in education, avoiding any missteps, excelling at work, and launching one’s own business (79).   Mike sees going to a for-profit as enhancing his reputation – and by means of a far simpler financial aid process (82).  Lester Spence’s Knocking the Hustle is namechecked, as is Sara Goldrick-Rab’s work (cf our book club and Future Trends Forum conversation) and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.

London (88-94) differs from Mike in many ways, including being the full-time caregiver for children (children and grandchildren), living in a rural area (Mike is from Atlanta), and having fewer family resources to draw on.  London has attended multiple for-profits. Major references here include Nicholas Hillman and Taylor Weichman’s Education Deserts.  (London speaks the chapter’s title)

Clarice (100-103) differs from London and Mike in being younger – nearly traditional-age undergraduate – and having both distinct familial and personal challenges.

Aaron isn’t a student, but an Ivy-education ex-financier who turned to for-profit education “to make a difference” and whose perspective contributes a good deal (103-110).  He observes that many for-profit students are psychologically traumatized, seeking parental (usually maternal) authority figures to get past “infantilization”.  Many of those student also need childcare, which some community colleges and public institutions offer, but less than they used to.  Setting up such multi-level support services is what SingleStopUSA offers.

In between Cottom describes reasons for-profits succeed at winning students (nimbleness and regulatory compliance), then reminds us of the relative nature of debt (98).  She also continues to develop challenges in getting good data about the lower ed world, and distinguishes between for-profits’ appeal to two different lower class strata, dreams marketed to the poorest (and female) versus insurance aimed at those relatively wealthier (and male) (100).


  1. Why aren’t non-profit colleges and universities attracting Clarices, Londons, and Mikes?
  2. Why did community colleges and public universities start reducing their child care support?  Was it because of the Great Recession, or declining public support, or demographics, or something other?
  3. Aaron observes that employers want students who have more skills and will accept lower compensation levels (110-111).  Are you seeing this yourself?

Next Monday, June 5, we move on to Chapter 4, “When Higher Education Makes Cents.”  And don’t forget our Forum meeting with the author this Thursday!

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

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4 Responses to Reading _Lower Ed_: "Jesus is my Backup Plan"

  1. Pingback: Reading _Lower Ed_: When Higher Education Makes Cents | Bryan Alexander

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  3. Pingback: Reading _Lower Ed_: Credentials, Jobs, and the New Economy | Bryan Alexander

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

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