Reading _Lower Ed_: The Education Gospel

With this post we begin 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 the book’s introduction, “The Education Gospel.”

I’ll begin with a short summary, followed by questions.
Lower Ed being held
Before I get started, some readers have already begun sharing their thoughts.  raptnrent has started reading the book, and shares thoughts about a common professional experience with Cottom.  Many tweets appear with the LowerEd hashtag.  I’d like to encourage everyone to express their reflections during this reading.

The Education Gospel

This introduction blends several narrative and analytical strands.  We learn about: the author’s personal experience working in the for-profit sector, including the story of a potential student; her understanding of that sector as an outcome of changes in the labor market; the role of cultural attitudes towards education; what the rest of the book will explore.

Professor Cottom’s autobiography is heartbreaking.

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 She begins the book by hoping that she *did not* have a powerful impact on one student, the opposite of what educators usually desire, then gradually describes that man’s course through the commercial campus’ induction process.  Human lives and decisions will be the book’s focus.  I received the impression that the author writes in part in expiation.  This approach also offers a sketch of life inside a for-profit college.

A key theme in this section is that for-profits arose because the American labor market shifted towards putting greater risk and responsibility on workers, and job security shrank (15-16).  Education plays a key role in enabling that transformation:

When we offer more credentials in lieu of a stronger social contract, it is Lower Ed.  When we ask for social insurance and get workforce training, it is Lower Ed.  When we ask for justice and get “opportunity”, it is Lower Ed… [O]ur political choices constructed Lower Ed as a legitimate way to navigate the vicissitudes of the labor market. (12)

More, for-profit colleges’ “long-term viability depends upon acute, sustained socioeconomic inequalities.” (21) “Unequal K-12 schools” also sped Lower Ed’s rise (15)….These changes include growing power of the investor class, who receive more protections when considering spending on education than would-be students do in their institutional selection process (10).

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In this context American attitudes towards education play an important role in driving people to take for-profit classes.  The chapter’s title refers to work by Grubb and Lazerson, who describe this idea of education’s purpose:

education [is] moral, personally edifying, collectively beneficial, and a worthwhile investment no matter the cost, either individual or societal (10)…

That belief shifting in recent decades to focus more on the end being upgraded employment.  “Education is good because a good job is good.” (11) . And that faith is increasingly costly:

we increasingly demand more personal sacrifice from those who would pursue higher education: more loans, fewer grants; more choices, fewer practical options; more possibilities, more risk of failing to attain any of them…

The gap between the education gospel and the real options available to people… is how we end up with Lower Ed.(11)

The end of “The Education Gospel” describes Cottom’s method.  The book will rely on interviews with for-profit students and administrators (24-5) and the author’s documented, personal experience (22-3), including her signing up for for-profit classes (24). Cottom will situate post-secondary education within “a crucial, interrelated system of people, ideas, and degrees, embedded in our greater social fabric.” (21)  She will also rely on for-profits’ financial documentation (26).


  1. “Lower Ed can exist precisely because Higher Ed does.” (11) . How does nonprofit postsecondary schooling depend on the for-profit sector?
  2. How does the author’s autobiographical presence shape your reading?
  3. What are the political options for responding to the conditions that enabled Lower Ed’s rise?
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Next Monday, May 15, we move on to Chapter 1, The Real.

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11 Responses to Reading _Lower Ed_: The Education Gospel

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    Your emphasis on Tressie’s personal experience suggests to me – perhaps wrongly — questioning about balance and bias. For me, her background solidifies her credentials. Absence of experience would weaken it — not unlike so many non-educators pushing their pet ed fixes.

    Now is the time for me to lay out an advance blanket caveat for having taught online in profit. Yes, that will shape my reading — quite like even more than Tressie’s autobiographical presence.

    I started watching for-profit higher ed in the late nineties while in grad school, which was also when it started moving into online. Back then, higher ed media was highly critical of for-profit higher ed. Then I noticed around 2001-2002 that this previously almost hypercritical media suddenly became vastly more accepting of for-profit higher ed — perhaps not accidentally coinciding with for-profits increased advertising in higher ed media.

    Unfortunately, some financially strapped and/or growth focused colleges appear to have studied the for-profit playbook and have similar practices supported by “fill the seats” and push student debt advising policies — not to mention creative interpretation of “sufficient progress” for Pell Grant eligibility.

    • I’m curious to see how people will respond to your question about Higher Ed depending on Lower Ed. I recognize how thoroughly Higher Ed has been saturated with the goals, ambitions, and language of corporate culture, but I’m less clear about Lower Ed, specifically, shaping it.

  2. Joe Murphy says:

    I think historically, Lower Ed has provided Higher Ed with something to differentiate from. I wouldn’t argue that those differentiations have been uniformly accurate or effective, and different strata have handled it differently, but in creating an identity (for an individual or a group/sector) there is some need to say what you’re not.

    After reading Cottom, I think there’s an interesting long-term impact to watch. For-profit institutions are meaningfully increasing the body of people who have had a higher education experience, as evidenced by the credential they get at the end of it. If “college” becomes even a little more familiar to those people and their friends and families, that’s an interesting potential change in the narrative around underserved communities and first-generation college students. It could be an interesting in-road for admission officers and student support staff. Of course, given the data around debt and poor employment outcomes, there’s a high risk that the story those folks internalize will be damaging to Higher Ed too.

    I’m also going to release a bit of a spoiler (I already finished the book) – one of Cottom’s interlocutors is a Morehouse grad who goes on to get a for-profit master’s degree in order to have the extra letters on his name badge at networking events. Later in the book she talks about “coding boot camps” and other white-collar for-profit vocational training. These programs may actually release pressure on some sectors of Higher Ed to change their models. They create competition, of course, but they allow for claims along the lines of how a traditional degree plus a coding boot camp is actually the best of both worlds. This strikes me as a remarkably sad ecumenical bridge between the Education Gospel and the social value mission.

    (I wonder where the fee-based professional development/continuing education workshops offered by professional associations fall in the Higher Ed/Lower Ed continuum…)

    Moving to question 2, I like Cottom’s attention to her own experience as a researcher. I find it generally refreshing, compared to the “semi-detached observer” tone we saw in Putnam and Goldrick-Rab. On the whole, I think she handles the transitions between personal storytelling and academic analysis pretty well, and I find a lot of power in her clear authorial presence.

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