Reading _Lower Ed_: The Beauty College and the Technical College

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 two, “The Beauty College and the Technical College.”

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

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

Beauty College photo by kaex0r414, captioned "i did a test model for aroma therapy assessment."

“test model for aroma therapy assessment”

Chapter Two: The Beauty College and the Technical College

This chapter divides the for-profit sector into two branches, based on student circumstances and curriculum.

It begins by continuing the book’s autobiographical thread, describing the author’s experience as a trainer for a telecommunications company, then shifting to sales (not admissions!) for a for-profit beauty college.  Cottom places both of those entities in the economic context of the late 1990s/early 2000s, with rising financialization and rapidly advancing technology.

One key point: the beauty college carefully shapes its services to take advantage of its market’s gender, race, and class status, or “cumulative disadvantage”. (50)

Then Cottom contrasts the beauty college with a technical college, describing very different leaders and atmosphere.  The technical institution is more financialized, with a high pressure environment. “The Technical College spent more time telling me about regulations because it had been sued or censured many times for violating them.” (60)

The chapter’s second part analyzes and teases apart the differences between these two subsets of for-profit higher ed, while continuing to distinguish between for-profit and non-profit post-secondary education.  Many people (and employers) fail to distinguish between for-profit and non-profit schools (58).  For-profit institutional leaders tend to come from finance or business backgrounds with bachelor’s or master’s degrees, while PhDs from other fields usually leader non-profits (62-3).  For-profits are a more appealing choice for people struggling with the new economy’s labor market pressures than are non-profits (66).

Technical college sign by joybotYet for-profits are not a unitary sector.  Beauty colleges tend to be locally or regionally owned, and marketed more towards women of color, while technical colleges are national, Wall Street-traded chains, recruiting white men.  Beauty college students tend to be poorer and less academically credentialed than their technical peers (63).  Summing up by exemplars, and following Bowen and Bok’s river of education in life metaphor:

[O]ne river carries middle-class, white-collar workers to the MBA program at Capelle and the poor black mother of three who is close to maxing our her welfare eligibility to the cosmetology certificate at Empire Beauty School.  The Beauty School students and the Technical College students typically don’t share a social class, an income bracket, or the same kind of social and cultural capital.  All of our traditional means of thinking about those students as a single group break down. (65; emphases added)

The chapter concludes by pointing ahead to the rest of the book, indicating a focus on how people decide to attend these institutions.


  1. Does this chapter’s profile describe beauty and technical colleges in your area?
  2. How does online learning fit into this picture?  I’m thinking of the challenge of the time trap (66), and how online classes are more convenient than face to face ones.
  3. Can you think of similarly deep divides between non-profit higher education institutions?
  4. Cottom urges “more such research and data” on how the new economy shapes educational paths (66).  Can anyone recommend good examples?

Next Monday, May 29, we move on to Chapter 9, “The Beauty College and the Technical College.”

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

(photos by kaex0r414 and joybot)

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11 Responses to Reading _Lower Ed_: The Beauty College and the Technical College

  1. Vicky Romano says:

    The words “Enrolling Students who needed so much more than we could give them” (quote about the tools Beauty school students need to do business and even more tools for doing hair of people of color) hit me quite hard. I feel that in my BA 131 course (word/excel/intro to computers) all the time. I hear at least once a term I don’t have a computer ( it is an online class) or I can’t afford a book. Now, I am working on Open Resources but in this course, I am not there yet. I do price my texts carefully and do let students use older versions of texts where helpful (which I get hollered at by the bookstore–long story of a takeover by a large chain) Where are we showing what the cost of enrollment is on admission? Maybe we say it and publish it but the message is not always getting through. I know I follow up with students individually to make sure they can drop the course in a timely way and not lose money OR give them time to get the text. I am not sure what else to do.
    I am befuddled and exasperated reading this book. I know much of it is my commitment to access, especially access to students of color and first-generation students. I do know I want to do better at helping students and my classes are pretty big so hopefully “I can make a difference.* I teach and work at a regional four-year public institution.

  2. Heidi Harrigan says:

    This chapter rang true on so many levels. It certainly does describe the beauty and technical colleges in my area. I worked in non-profit higher ed for many years and the problems of affording books etc. that Vicky mentions are very real barriers for students. Unfortunately, some of the administrations and faculty in non-profits are rather tone deaf to this problem. In Ohio, librarians are partnering with faculty to explore options such as the Open Textbook Library and library consortia work hard to get books in the hands of students. However, with ever shrinking budgets and administrators sometimes more worried about bookstore contracts than their own students, commitment to solving the problem varies. When the for-profit institutions take care of building seamless access to everything the student needs into the cost they are charging and recognize, for example, that the beauty school students couldn’t cover the cost of the tools they would need and came up with a solution, they are certainly sweetening the deal for the student. Even if it ultimately means a higher cost over time, for the student it solves an immediate and pressing problem. I was surprised by the very high number of people who didn’t know they had attended a for-profit. I hope that the author dives into the academic rigor of these programs more later in the book, especially for the advanced degrees.

    As far as online learning goes, that type of delivery assumes a certain amount of technical skill and savy, as well as high levels of motivation. It can be even more time intensive than face-to-face coursework, so I’m not sure it’s something that will work for every student or every course of study. How does the online delivery affect students who need lots of remediation before they can start their degree program? Even with adaptive learning technology, it’s daunting. I’ve also seen cases where nurses, having attended an online for-profit program with limited clinical hours find themselves shut out of nurse practitioner programs and other advanced degrees for not having enough clinical education. Regardless of where this all goes, there absolutely needs to be transparency about curriculum being able to meet licensure and other requirements.

    • Great points, Heidi.

      Thank you for the sketch of librarians helping in Ohio.

      What do you think it would take for more transparency?

      • Heidi Harrigan says:

        One aspect might be creating greater public awareness. Can established resources such as US News & World Report play a role in opening those conversations through the data they gather or do we need to look at other avenues? What role can or should career counselors, educators and librarians play in lifting the veil? Might for-profit and non-profit institutions eventually come to the same table to discuss this. Transfer agreements might be one reason. Your thoughts?

      • I know USNWR sees itself as casting more light on colleges.
        And that’s what the Obama administration was trying to do with its scorecard.

        I fear it will take some major policy work to simplify this.

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