Reading _Lower Ed_: The Real

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 the book’s first numbered chapter, The Real.

I’ll begin with a short summary, followed by questions.
Lower Ed being held
Before I get started, Vanessa Vaile adds this painfully funny Onion bit, “Online University Allows Students To Amass Crippling Debt At Own Pace”.

Chapter One: The Real

This short chapter seeks to establish what we know about the reality of for-profit higher education.

Some information is controversial, or incomplete.  Employment data “are still being disputed”. (28) Much research aims at for-profits graduates, but “the majority of those who enroll in for-profit colleges do not even graduate.” (31) Answering “does their growth mean greater access or greater insecurity?” (29) stretches over various positions.    Most for-profits are not major national chains (36).

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What is known: women, “poor and minority students are disproportionally enrolled in  for-profit colleges” (29; also 32).  Just about 75% of for-profit students are female (203 n27). Students attending for-profits are less likely to graduate “than are students with similar demographics in traditional higher education… [and] students in for-profit colleges have more risk factors for dropping out.”  Students taking classes at for-profits are more likely to owe more debt. (30)  For-profits expanded not only in total student numbers but also in more prestigious programs and degrees (33).

In addition to these dimensions the chapter situates the recent for-profit boom within American financial changes.  Cottom sees that growth as driven by increasing financialization (profit taking) and the precarious labor status of many Americans.

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The more insecure people feel, the more they are willing to spend money for an insurance policy against low wages, unemployment, and downward mobility. (37)

Towards the end of the chapter Cottom offers an interesting example to test out for-profits’ claims and realities, that sector’s ability to respond to changing demands for health care education.  For-profits cannot meet major chunks of that demand, and instead focus on allied health.

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 But within that subset the results are skewed away from social good.(35-36)


  1. Do for-profit colleges near you have a similar profile to the ones described in this chapter?
  2. Why haven’t non-profit colleges and universities attracted these students?
  3. Will free tuition programs for public institutions compete with for-profits?
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Next Monday, May 22, we move on to Chapter 2, “The Beauty College and the Technical College.”

Our reading so far: the plan; introduction.

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7 Responses to Reading _Lower Ed_: The Real

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