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lower ed

17 september 2017

Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom comes to the problem of for-profit higher ed in America from two powerful perspectives: academic analysis and personal experience. Her academic side allows her to land body-blow after body-blow on for-profit schools, but her personal experience allows her to do so without expressing contempt for their students, or faculty, or even for most of their staff and administrators (having been a staff member at two for-profits herself).

For-profits are the stationary targets of the educational world. Not a little of the prestige that comes from working for a "traditional" college derives, as Cottom notes, simply from its contrast to a for-profit school. No matter how many corners we cut and how much we water down our curricula, professors at "real" colleges can always say "at least I'm not working at DeVry."

Though one of Cottom's themes is that the public at large, and students overwhelmingly, see no useful distinctions between traditional and for-profit colleges. Both of them can put valuable letters after your name. Both charge an arm and a leg, but the arms and legs can be deferred thanks to Uncle Sam. Both increasingly have turned to online, distance, "dynamic" models of course delivery. Both, more and more, pay mostly lip service to accreditation, and spin job-placement data in their favor as much as they can. Traditional schools may use business models developed at for-profits, or outsource their on-line curricula to for-profit vendors.

Cottom talks about her experiences admitting students at both a beauty school and a more high-powered technical college. (She names neither.) She was not a counselor, she says: counselors have their counselees' best interests at heart. She was a salesperson, pure and simple. Or perhaps not so simple: like a military recruiter, she was the public face of an institution that exploits people, but also offers them genuine chances. Unlike the military, though, a for-profit college exists only to extract money from people.

Some people exist to extract money from college. Cottom talks about the importance of the student-loan refund (71-72), saying that upper-middle-class folks rarely understand that you can borrow more from an educational lender than you pay your school – and then live on the proceeds, or sometimes invest them and forget about going to school. I chuckled at this revelation about refunds, because though I am nominally upper-middle-class, I survived graduate school by borrowing more than my tuition cost. (I was either too stupid to be offered a stipend, or too stupid to talk my way into one – though as Cottom would argue, I was smart enough to be admitted, just too unschooled to game the system – exactly like the students she recruited.)

America is unique in how we offer students second, third, sixth and eighth chances to re-enter our educational system, Cottom observes. That's a good and a bad thing. It means that training is never closed off, but it means that retraining may never finish. If I'm not unique in living on overborrowed tuition money, I suspect I am odd in never having been a student after I finally graduated, 34 years ago. Most people continually retrain and recertify. Some of them learn something in the process. Others are simply badgered by the conditions of the labor market into perpetual expensive upgrades, just to stay on the professional treadmill.

One of the common treadmills that Cottom mentions is the RN-to-BSN track. Registered nurses may or may not have bachelor's degrees; nursing is a profession where college graduates share basic licenses with those who've done certificate programs, usually from 2-year schools. BSNs form an elite (disproportionately white, Cottom claims), and RNs without that degree fall under pressure to earn the BSN if they want to stay even modestly on track in their careers.

But what to do? The reason most BSN-less nurses didn't complete a 4-year degree was because they needed to earn livings as soon as they could. Once employed, they generally can't take a couple of years off from their jobs to earn BSNs. But they can borrow money to earn BSNs online. A vast number of nurses are enrolled in online RN-to-BSN programs – it's hard to ascertain how many, because they take courses at traditionals and for-profits alike. And they often drop out, only to start up again awhile later somewhere else, their accumulated credit hours eroding with each change in program. Cottom documents many a case of women (they're mostly women) struggling through such online credentialing, reaching points of no return where further debt becomes very risky, but the prospect of not completing a certain level of qualification becomes riskier still.

Lines between traditional and for-profit colleges blur still further when one morphs into the other. Ashford University in Clinton, Iowa is a case in point. (To be clear, my case; Cottom does not discuss it.) For most of the 20th century, there was a small Catholic college in Clinton called Mount St. Clare, which served its community without much apparent heed to finances, as befits a school with a famous mendicant saint in its name. In the early 21st, the school was sold to a profit-making group, became Ashford University, and experienced phenomenal growth. The physical campus continued to exist for a while (it has since closed). But its new owners didn't need its infrastructure; they needed its accreditation. They needed its eligibility for student loans and veterans benefits. Ashford now exists solely on-line, and has moved its headquarters to California, and – I say this gently in order to be fair – Ashford has experienced some legal difficulties as a result of the whole process. You can look them up.

Ashford purportedly has about 48,000 students at the moment. Many another online college, and many another online operation at a traditional university, reports similar enrollments. The mind boggles that there could be that many students in the educational pipeline. But the downside, as Cottom notes, is that many of these students are semi-permanently stuck in the pipeline, migrating from one virtual campus to another. The pipeline is crowded, and it's hard to tread water there; money flows through much better than people do.

And here I will abandon the sewage metaphor, because it really is unfair. As Cottom makes vivid for the reader, most of the students are smart, just structurally at a massive disadvantage. Most of the employees are earnest enough – like Cottom herself in her for-profit career, they can be evangelical about the need for a good education, and the value of cutting through academic red tape to deliver it to students. And most of the faculty …

… well, that's a good question. Cottom barely mentions for-profit faculty. Though calling them that suggests that those faculty themselves are profiting, which I can pretty much guarantee you ain't happening. For-profits (and their "traditional" kin) exert a lot of effort to damp down the "cost centers" of instruction. Often, on-line instructors are "coaches," paid next to nothing, deputized to carry out the academic prescriptions of credentialed faculty, who are unseen at the top of some increasingly notional professional hierarchy. Here (my observation, not Cottom's), education, as so often, converges with medicine in some structural ways. If you are hospitalized, much of your direct care will be provided by techs (many trained by the for-profit system), and managed bureaucratically by medical-records workers (many trained in for-profit schools). Even nurses can be remote from patient care these days, as they instruct and manage teams of techs. (And of course, to keep doing so, those nurses need master's degrees, which they need to do on-line). So it is with education. Your "coach" for your online course is the academic analogy to the tech drawing your blood and checking your vitals.

For-profit (and traditional!) online curricula become centralized, standardized, managerial – and easy to cheat at (84). Often the certificates and degrees on tap are nebulous qualifications in "technology" or "business": preparing students not for specific careers, but for the rat race of continually "improving" credentials just to stay employable. "If we have a shitty credentialing system," says Cottom, "it is likely because we have a shitty labor market" (171). She calls the entire superstructure of credentialing a form of "negative social insurance" (174). Instead of funding social security, she argues, contemporary education continually squeezes money from students who fear they will be abandoned by capital. What they really need, she says, is "to not need a credential at all" (171).

Here, Cottom's critique (largely from the left) may coincide with certain right-wing critiques of "lower ed" that target the thicket of licensing regulations as a barrier to small businesses and their employees. But the overlap between left and right here is minimal, and the right has little interest in redressing the rampant demands that employers make on a stressed-out workforce. Volatility, not stability, is the mantra of the "new economy" that Cottom critiques. Stop the world, you feel like crying; I want to get off.

Cottom's Lower Ed is not a book about race; nor is the for-profit educational world one much thought of in terms of race. (Online, all students are colorless.) Yet she closes her book with an epilogue that speaks an entire separate volume. Part of Cottom's graduate research involved enrolling in for-profit programs. She talked with salespeople and went on campus tours. No misrepresentation was involved: Cottom was ready, she says, to reveal that she already had a BA (as many for-profits' students do). "But no one asked" (187). Admitters assumed that Cottom, a black woman, was self-evidently on some employment treadmill or other, looking for the path of least resistance between herself and the proverbial "piece of paper." Cottom goes on:

I'm a sociologist. For me, perpetuating the inequalities resulting from generational cumulative disadvantage doesn't require intent. In fact, racism and sexism work best of all when intent is not a prerequisite. (187)
It is no coincidence that the neoliberal attack on public higher-education funding in America gained momentum just as de jure segregation was disappearing.

Cottom, Tressie McMillan. Lower Ed: The troubling rise of for-profit colleges in the new economy. New York: New Press, 2017.