The Chronicle Interview

A Sociologist Looks at the Failure of the For-Profits and the Rise of Trump

February 24, 2017

André Chung for The Chronicle
Tressie McMillan Cottom, an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth U., offers a novel perspective on for-profit higher education, having worked as a recruiter in the industry before grad school. "What’s the social function of for-profit higher education?" she asks. "If this thing exists and continues to exist, it must serve a social function."

Until she began writing her first book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, Tressie McMillan Cottom looked back with embarrassment and regret on her experiences as a recruiter at a for-profit technical college and a beauty school.

The regret was for students she had encouraged to enroll before she learned, as she writes, that "there is such a thing as ‘bad education.’ " The embarrassment was for herself: As the only African-American woman in her Ph.D. program at Emory University, she initially saw her work for the colleges as a blot on her academic pedigree that set her further apart from her classmates.

But that insider’s perspective, combined with her graduate-school research — 100-plus interviews with students at for-profit colleges — gave her an unusual window into the industry when writing the book.

Ms. Cottom, in her second year as a faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University, has sociological interests that extend beyond for-profit colleges. She spoke with The Chronicle about digital sociology, life as a Twitter user, and what the "old black women in Sunday school" could have told us about the rise of Donald Trump.

Your new book on for-profit colleges avoids the "bad actors" lens in favor of one that treats the colleges more as a societal problem. Why?

We were asking and answering the same questions multiple ways: Who goes to these schools, and what happens to them when they go? At some point we kind of had an answer to that, right? The underemployed, minorities, and women were going, and they weren’t really having a great return on their credentials.

We knew what was happening: high dropout rates, high loan-default rates, long time to completion, that kind of stuff.

The more interesting question to me was: Why do we keep having this relationship with for-profit colleges? For a sociologist, the answer is always, If this thing exists and continues to exist, it must serve a social function. We wouldn’t allow it to exist if it didn’t. What’s the social function of for-profit higher education? It warehouses and profits from the slack in the labor market, the underemployed, and those who are afraid of being under- and unemployed. That’s the role that it serves.

You’re saying, in effect, that the for-profits represent a very big failure of our system?

That, and we as a society should come up with, and we have come up with, something better. One of the important takeaways for me, personally, is we have better answers to the social function that for-profit colleges serve. We have, at different times, historically, done things like public jobs programs, direct training, not-for-profit government training. Unions have provided training for those types of workers. We’ve invested in public higher education. We’ve created the community-college system. We have all kinds of things — a safety net that, historically, we would have used.

What was interesting about this time period is that we decided we would not invest in any of those social-safety-net features. We were going to offshore all of that demand to the private, higher-education sector, where the inequality in jobs and mobility really becomes a profit center for private industry.

A lot of people know you primarily through your entertaining Twitter feed [@tressiemcphd]. What do you learn by being on Twitter?

It’s changed over time and over the course of my career. I started on Twitter when I was in graduate school. Not as a graduate student — that was not my primary identity on Twitter. I was just there mostly as a black woman, so I talk to a lot of people on "black Twitter," and I think that was a coping mechanism. I was in a predominantly white institution, and I was probably seeking some community and found it online.

Later in my graduate-school career, when I was certainly engaging more as a researcher than I was as a private person, it opened me up to a world of the elite-higher education discourse in a way that almost nothing else had done. I mean, I was having conversations with people across status hierarchies on Twitter. The fact that I could have a conversation with the president of the university, the lead researcher in my field — I think you and I first crossed paths on Twitter, right? The fact that I’m talking to a major publication about my research — none of that would have been possible without the context, the weak ties, that Twitter helped to magnify.

Now it’s come to a point where I probably get less from it individually, and I think of it as a platform for the people I’m trying to help. It helps me become useful to my graduate students, for example. I use it to find resources for my students. I use it to try to help my colleagues and myself get our work out. It’s probably now more of a conduit for my institution and my profession. I may not get quite as much from it personally, but the long-term relationships that I built with people there are still really valuable to me.

A little more than a year ago, even before you discreetly live-tweeted from a Trump rally, you predicted that Donald Trump could win the presidency. You wrote, "We always have in us the impulse to elect a President Trump, Always."

That’s right. Always.

What were you thinking then? Was that the sociologist talking? Was that the black feminist talking?

That was definitely the black woman in me. There’s a black, Southern woman in me who has a particular understanding of race in this country, but I was informed by the sociologist in me, which is that we know that everything has a historical context.

I just thought it was really ridiculous of people in discourse [speaking as if] there had been a break in our historical narrative, and there was some new America that did not have the historical baggage of race. And I thought, I missed that development. Of course we can elect Donald Trump. The idea that we could not elect a racist, sexist, xenophobic president would forget that we have elected them before. Why we thought we have made such a huge jump in our culture was just beyond my understanding, and I was really disappointed and a little afraid, frankly. I got so mad at the news media and other people being so resistant to that idea because I think that their resistance to the idea of him being possible, helps make him possible.

They didn’t take him seriously enough. Didn’t treat him as a real candidate until it was far too late. And I thought that was a blindness of how white identity works, of how there’s always this march of progression of history and there’s never a look back at our history.

We were not "postracial" quite yet?

Yes, exactly. Donald Trump is not the anomaly. Barack Obama was the anomaly. Donald Trump actually makes perfect sense in the big, historical narrative arc of this country.

You’ve written that a lot of people in mainstream academe and the media didn’t see Donald Trump’s victory coming, but that "the old black women in Sunday school" did. What should we be learning from them?

Oh, everything!

This was one of those elections where the outsider perspective mattered. In ethnography, for example, we talk about the insider-outsider divide. So when an ethnographer goes into a foreign field to learn about people, one of the most powerful things they have is their lens of being an outsider. I think that’s one of the great things that people of color will always have in this country — that we are, by default, outsiders, and it gives you a certain perspective on our society and our nation.

Black people, in particular, because of how being black is defined in our country, are always really intimately aware of how important history is to the present in a way that not all groups are. And that’s actually kind of anti-American. The American ideology is that we are always new. You can always start fresh and build a new self, the Horatio Alger story. Only for African-Americans are we defined so much by our history that we always have a historical perspective, and so because of that we are able to see these weird moments like the election of Donald Trump in a different perspective.

We needed to think of this moment as having some precedent, and we needed to pay attention to it. And we needed to temper our enthusiasm about how much we have overcome. Our song is "We Shall Overcome," not "We Overcame." That might be an important perspective.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.