Reading _Lower Ed_: When Higher Education Makes Cents

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 four, “When Higher Education Makes Cents”.

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

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

Before we get started, one quick note.

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 Tressie McMillan Cottom was a guest on the Future Trends Forum last week.  We’ll have a video recording up later this month.  In the meantime, here’s a Storify of our extensive Twitter conversation.

Lower Ed being heldChapter Four: When Higher Education Makes Cents

This chapter continues the previous chapter’s exploration of student decision-making when choosing to attend a for-profit, with an emphasis on institutions’ recruitment strategies and tactics.  The first part follows the author’s experiences as she experimented in signing up with nine for-profit institutions (117).  The second section traces what professor Cottom learned in spending time with an online support group for women studying at for-profits (131-141).

Cottom deduces several key points about how lower ed wins students:

  • For profits save time.  ‘Time has become the commodity being traded for institutional prestige.” (115) Cottom describes one school where students can go from first contact to actually taking classes in eighteen days (118).
  • Since for-profits are disconnected from high schools, prep schools, and transfer agreements with post-secondary institutions, they have to go to great lengths to connect with relatively isolated students (124).
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  • Face to face and telephone are hugely important for for-profit recruiting.  Online?  Not so much at all (127). 
  • For-profit enrollment officers (EOs) used a “pain funnel” approach, a series of questions addressing “pain points” in a way designed to draw the prospect in, even in unethical ways (129, 214n10).
  • Those EOs often positioned themselves as strong mother figures (129).  (Nice comparison to tiger mothers)
  • Pricing is clear and untweakable, “absolute”, in comparison to the rest of higher ed’s flexibility (think tuition discounts) (130-1).
  • Students tended not to see their educational experience in terms of race or gender (137).  Instead, they were likely to think of themselves as entrepreneurs, ready to start their own businesses (138).


  1. Why do for-profits downplay digital communication with prospective students?
  2. Why do these students avoid discussing their situation in terms of race, class, or gender?
  3. Should higher ed compete with lower in terms of speed and efficiency of recruiting?

Next Monday, June 12, we move on to Chapter 5, “Where Credit Is Due.

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

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3 Responses to Reading _Lower Ed_: When Higher Education Makes Cents

  1. Pingback: Reading _Lower Ed_: Where Credit Is Due | Bryan Alexander

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