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