Reading _Lower Ed_: Where Credit Is Due

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 5, “Where Credit Is Due.”

I’ll begin with a short summary, followed by questions.  As a quick reminder, you can find all posts in this reading right here.

Chapter 5, “Where Credit Is Due”

This section concerns transfer credit, “not a sexy-sounding topic” but crucial to understanding for-profits’ relationship with the rest of higher education.

The Transfer

The gist: people taking classes with for-profits have a harder time transferring credits to other institutions than students in any other post-secondary sector.

Cottom sets this up by pointing out that American higher education is unusually “porous”.  That is, people can leave our education system, then return to it later in life.  Moreover, we can – in theory, and rarely in practice – move between strata within the overall ecosystem (144-5).  For-profits are supposed to partake of that porosity, however “that ideology does not match the empirical reality” (145).

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It turns out that students taking classes at for-profits are best equipped to ship credits to community colleges, and not too well at that (147).

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 One reason for this is the status of actual credit-accepting protocols: “Most of the action in cross-sector articulation agreements has happened between for-profits and community colleges.” (149)

Cottom reminds us that their greater a campus’ reputation, the less likely it is to accept transfer credits, especially if they are private institutions (150).

Two personal stories anchor this short chapter.  We begin with Kevin Golembiewski, who started his higher ed experience at a community college and ended up with a Harvard Law degree (141ff).  The other tale is of “Raley’s mother”, an adult learner toiling through a for-profit university and running out of aid money (154-6).  We also return to London, a student we met in chapter three.  Golembiewski’s story shows how students *can* cut across the diversity of American higher education institutions, aided by a mentor, skin color, and gender.

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 Raley’s mother’s story reveals how learners can get trapped with debt and no degree, unable to transfer to a better institution.


  1. If you work at a college or university, what’s the credit transfer situation?
  2. How important is it that for-profits have a weak record in transferring their credit to other institutions?
  3. If a college or university has a close relationship with local high schools, could that boost their chances of expanding credit agreements with other post-secondary schools?

Next Monday, June 19, we move on to chapter 6, “Credentials, Jobs, and the New Economy.”  With that and the epilogue we approach the book’s end.

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Our reading so far: the plan; introduction; chapter 1; chapter 2; chapter 3; chapter 4.

(transfer photo by Alan Levine)

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8 Responses to Reading _Lower Ed_: Where Credit Is Due

  1. Waweru Kaka says:

    In Kenya the whole issue of credit transfer is being legislated. If this bill is passed it will allow learners to transfer with their credits from one institution of Higher learning to the other with the necessary waivers being awarded where it merits.

  2. A little off topic- but it follows that often study-abroad students have extreme difficulties in even identifying “credit” counting courses that will transfer credit back to the US university. Students must be vigilant in navigating their courses carefully otherwise they can end up needing to take additional courses.
    Another point is that state universities often have some reciprocity with community colleges but very limited in the amount of credits and what courses are transferable and often students need numerous correspondences between schools and quite rightly official documentation.

    • That’s a great point, Roxann. Does responsibility for helping study abroad students navigate this fall upon the study abroad office, or on a given student’s academic advisor?

  3. Joe Murphy says:

    Reading this chapter, I found myself really quite surprised that we haven’t seen a major push for articulation agreements between state systems and for-profit institutions. It seems like that’s a very logical next step in the push for privatization. (It would fit well with the “systems and access” thinking which led to a focus on articulation agreements between community colleges and 4-year public institutions, plus the privatization focus coming out of the commercial K-12 charters.)

    Of course, at a private institution, every lost credit hour is also lost revenue (and a lost opportunity for the student to interact with the aspects of the home institution which make it distinctive), so I’d imagine transfer credits are given out less liberally in general. My own institution’s rules say that online and distance learning courses “may be approved in special circumstances”, though no one’s ever addressed my questions of how we’re supposed to tell online offerings from classroom-based ones when they carry the same course numbers at most bricks-and-mortar institutions.

    Turning that around, it does mean that for-profit institutions would see transferring-out students as lost revenue, and have to accept an implicit agreement that non-profit degrees are more valuable than for-profit. You could make money under both of those assumptions, but it seems counter to the direction of the industry, so maybe that’s why they haven’t pushed for it.

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

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