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Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy Hardcover – February 28, 2017
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"The best book yet on the complex lives and choices of for-profit students."
The New York Times Book Review
"Cottom does a good job of making the name Lower Ed stick, and she makes a solid case for reviewing the entire system of higher education for openness of opportunity."
"In Lower Ed McMillan Cottom is at her very bestrigorous, incisive, empathetic, and witty. . . . Her sharp intelligence, throughout, makes this book compelling, unforgettable, and deeply necessary."
Roxane Gay, author of Difficult Women and Bad Feminist
"Lower Ed is brilliant. It is nuanced, carefully argued, and engagingly written. It is a powerful, chilling tale of what happens when profit-driven privatization of a public good latches on to systemic inequality and individual aspirations."
Carol Anderson, author of White Rage and professor of African American studies at Emory University
"This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the market forces currently transforming higher education. It is an eye-opening portrait of this burgeoning educational sector and the ways in which its rapid expansion is linked to skyrocketing inequality and growing labor precarity in the twenty-first-century United States."
Ruth Milkman, past president of the American Sociological Association
"In a sea of simplistic and often bombastic critiques of American higher education, Tressie McMillan Cottom’s trenchant analysis of Lower Ed stands out. As the Trump administration moves to make life ever easier for the nation’s for-profit colleges, this book offers the most powerful form of resistancedetailed storytelling of the causes and consequences of this big-money industry. Anyone frustrated with high college prices, student debt, or the diminishing sense of hope surrounding so many communities needs to read this book."
Sara Goldrick-Rab, author of Paying the Price and professor of higher education policy at Temple University
"With passion, eloquence, and data too, McMillan Cottom charts the harm we are doing to our youth, to higher education, and to democracy itself."
Cathy N. Davidson, author of Now You See It and founding director of the Futures Initiative at the City University of New York
"[A] profound examination of the role of for-profit colleges in the emerging, new’ American economic landscape. This is the best book I’ve read on for-profit (or shareholder) colleges and universities."
William A. Darity Jr., professor of economics, public policy, and African American studies at Duke University
About the Author
Tressie McMillan Cottom worked in enrollment at two for-profit colleges. After experiencing the kinds of choices students faced, she left the for-profit educational sector to go study it in graduate school. She is now an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. She has been a columnist for Slate and an online contributor to the Washington Post and The Atlantic, and is quite fond of Dolly Parton, fancy coffee, brunch, nineties hip-hop, bacon, and the Delta blues. She lives in Richmond, Virginia.
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Cottom's thesis is that the driving forces behind the rise of for-profit, financialized Lower Ed are persistent social inequality combined with a shift in risk from institutions to individuals, most prominently here a shift in responsibilities for job training from employers and government to individual students and employees. This shift is partially masked by a collective myth-making about higher education as a source of the collective good, allowing for-profit conglomerates to ride the moral coattails of elite universities: elite Ed's explanations about why they don't need to distribute their enormous endowments or get taxed justify Lower Ed's expansion and growth to serve non-traditional students. But the conditions for Lower Ed to rise required a bipartisan faith in markets as the rational mechanism for distributing educational credentials, rather than a collective responsibility to use policy to support full employment and public funding of higher education. As carefully as Cottom describes the stories of individual actors, the real intellectual accomplishment is interpreting their actions as parts of larger systems.
Cottom refuses to blame the poor judgment of students or the evil hearts of college enrollment managers, but insists that we see the society that we all build and share as responsible for the social inequalities that produce Lower Ed.
For me this book did two things: 1) made me think critically about the landscape of higher education and our labor system in new ways and 2) inspired me to more carefully consider ways in which my personal history intersects with unsolved social problems. I am convinced that employing a combination of lived experience and research, heart and smarts, will lead us to innovative solutions that will make our society more just and more vibrant.