Lower Ed: A (Brief) Review

Lower Ed


Just in case you haven’t seen The New York Times review, her appearance on The Daily Show, the endorsement from Roxane Gay and Dr. Beverly Crusher (among many, many others), or one of her many other interviews, including a fantastic one here in The Chronicle, and remain unaware of of Tressie McMillan Cottom’s essential new book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, let me add my voice to the chorus and say get this book right now and read it.

I really do hope that a broad audience reads this book, but I think that everyone in higher education must read it, too. It is as much about what McMillan Cottom has called “the education gospel” and how it has impacted individual students as well as entire demographic groups, as it is about the economic conditions that provided a perfect storm for the rise of for-profits. We, in “traditional” higher education, are complicit in the education gospel, as well as, I would say, complicit in helping perpetuate the conditions that led students to choose for-profit institutions.

What McMillan Cottom does so well is to create a rich portrait of the for-profit student. As she put it in one of her interviews, “Two million students didn’t wake up stupid one day, they woke up scared.” Fear of falling behind economically and professionally, and so keep chasing credentials (heavily gendered credentials, to boot). McMillan Cottom has a deep empathy for the students she studies; McMillan Cottom herself worked for a brief period in the for-profit industry, enrolling students in programs, given her an insider knowledge and understanding of the students.

What can we learn? We can learn, I think, if nothing else, empathy for students that we may or may not have at best dismissed and at worst demonized. And then, take a hard look at how you, your institution, your community, are not meeting the needs of these students. We talk about “diversity” but when, for example, the biggest producers of African-American women PhDs are for-profits, are we really serious about it? Between Lower Ed and Sara Goldrick-Rab’s book, Paying the Price, we, as a system and as a society, are clearly not doing enough to help the most vulnerable students, students who are no less motivated and who want an education. “Non-traditional” students are the majority of students. Lower Ed makes it very clear that if we aren’t willing to serve them, someone else will, with disastrous results for far too many.


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