Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy by Tressie McMillan Cottam


“The more insecure people feel, the more they are willing to spend money for an insurance policy against low wages, unemployment, and downward mobility. Those least likely to have an insurance policy that our labor market values are people for whom higher education has always been a long shot: poor people, single parents, the socially isolated, African Americans, the working class.”

“When education researchers talk about the unmet consumer demand that for-profit colleges serve, they’re talking about inequality. Who is mostly likely to go to good schools with college-prep classes, have medical care and stable housing, focus on standardized tests, and have the money to participate in extracurricular activities? And who does not have those social resources that many traditional colleges assume their likely student will have? Again, the answer can be summed up by race, class, and gender.”

“When investors and politicians say that for-profit colleges offer a flexible solution to retrain the country’s workforce, they are talking about inequality. Whose training in the jobs of the 20th century is now obsolete in the 21st century? Who needs a flexible solution? Women who carry the burden of primary childcare, men working more than one job, older adults caring for both their parents and their own children—a group for whom time isn’t just money, but also the absence of money.”

“The argument goes that more for-profit colleges are a democratic good despite the fact that the most vulnerable students pay a high price for attending them. It’s said that consumers drive products, as if students are consuming degrees rather than the promise of a good job. In effect, people are blamed for doing precisely what the education gospel demands that they do.”

“From my experience on the ground working in for-profit colleges, and later when studying them, I realized there is a more satisfying—if damning—explanation for the rise of for-profit colleges in the Wall Street era of lower ed. Inequalities in how people work, exacerbated by social policies and legitimized by individualist notions of education as a consumer good, conspired to create the demand for a credential that would insure workers against bad jobs. And everyone from politicians to employers to researchers and those in traditional higher education benefitted when for-profit colleges became the solution to that demand. For-profit credentials became a political solution for “re-training” America’s workforce.”

tricia wang