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Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy

4.29  ·  Rating details ·  1,052 ratings  ·  183 reviews
Despite the celebrated history of not-for-profit institutions of higher education, today more than 2 million students are enrolled in for-profit colleges such as ITT Technical Institute, the University of Phoenix, and others. Yet little is known about why for-profits have expanded so quickly and even less about how the power and influence of this big-money industry impact ...more
Hardcover, 228 pages
Published January 26th 2016 by The New Press (first published December 29th 2015)
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Myrna For-profit means that the company/school etc. seeks to make a profit. Many schools in the US are private and charge tuition but are non-profit, meanin…moreFor-profit means that the company/school etc. seeks to make a profit. Many schools in the US are private and charge tuition but are non-profit, meaning all revenue is supposed to go back into operation of the organization. (less)

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Nov 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing
In Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, Tressie McMillan Cottom is at her very best--rigorous, incisive, empathetic, and witty. Lower Ed is a definitive accounting of the for-profit college phenomenon, who benefits from such schools and who is preyed upon. McMillan Cottom shares some sobering realities about for-profit education but her sharp intelligence, throughout, makes this book compelling, unforgettable, and deeply necessary.
Nov 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
A fascinating and sobering examination of the for-profit college phenomenon in the United States. As someone who has a good amount of economic privilege, I always tuned out commercials and advertisements for for-profit colleges. I did not think in any deep way about what their presence meant about our society. Tressie McMillan Cottom does a fabulous job of breaking down the socioeconomic implications of these institutions, showing that they capitalize on the inequalities created by our capitalis ...more
Bogi Takács
Mar 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2017-1st-pub
This was amazing, I just took a peek and could not stop reading, I was basically nailed to the book. It's based on the author's own ethnographic and sociological research; also ownvoices in multiple aspects. I can already see it on my 2017 best nonfiction reads list (eek I still need to post the 2016 one!).

I knew little about American for-profit colleges and I learned an immense amount from this book. Fair, nuanced, empathetic, avoids easy oversimplifications. I'll need to recommend it to alllll
Mar 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Cottom’s excellent new book is about for-profit colleges and credentialing, but it’s really about the collapse of the safety net and the dumping of risk on individuals. It’s also about really effective marketing techniques.

For-profit colleges became more attractive as the labor market became more uncertain and unfriendly—they even identified declining unemployment as a bigger threat to them than competition among them. “Poor labor market outcomes for their graduates (and non-graduates) is part o
Nov 08, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Tressie explains the post secondary education system, identifying the inequalities and the Financialized 'For Profit' colleges.
Sadly our education system has been turned into a money making machine and we have become financially trapped in the qualifications game, employment and success built upon degrees and certificates.
Tressie identifies the increasing inequalities between socio-economic groups, worsened by the transition from publicly funded education to carefully marketed for profit institu
May 15, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
It didn't take me many pages to assume this is Cottom's doctoral dissertation research revised into a book. After a little research, it was easily confirmed. Not necessarily a bad thing, but be warned - it reads like a dissertation.

Cottom worked for 2 different for-profit college companies, one focused on trade/beauty school and the other offering AA, bachelor's, and master's degrees leaving each when she became disturbed by some of their "recruiting" practices. She details some of these issues
Feb 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Just as good as everyone says it is. What really stood out to me was how Tressie frames the discussion of for-profits not as an educational conversation (where it tends to reside), but as a broader result of the way work and employment are changing. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about these issues, that really pushes me to think about whether the solutions we have really are sufficient. For a long time I'd thought that part of the fix here was about dealing with our credentialing ...more
Mar 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
"As it turns out, there is such a thing as "bad" education. It is an educational option that, by design, cannot increase students' odds of beating the circumstances of their birth."

I can't say that anything in Tressie McMillan Cottom's book wholly caught me by surprise. Knowing what we know about the way for-profit organizations operate generally, it makes sense that a for-profit college run by shareholders would seek to increase its returns over all else (including the quality of its programs a
Apr 09, 2017 rated it did not like it
Shelves: junk
A series of cherry picked anecdotes that lead to fantastic generalities to feed the confirmation bias of paying customers/readers.

If I go into a more profound analysis, this is a sick argument for state owned everything. But I can't stop from laughing at the irony of having an optional life stage support a mandatory and low quality prison school system. Happily, the author does not have the brain power to go that far.
May 11, 2017 rated it it was ok
Incomplete! The book is about education, so I awarded a grade, and that grade is “I” — Incomplete. Lower Ed is subtitled The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy. Written by Tressie McMillan Cottom, and published by The New Press in 2017, the book is an analysis of the rise of for-profit higher-education businesses in America, of their effect on the US Economy and, more important, of the effect on the individual students who become deeply in debt because of them. T ...more
Bryan Alexander
Jun 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: economics, education
We read this book for our online book club in spring-summer 2017.
Detailed notes and discussion for each chapter are on my blog:
the reading plan
chapter 1
chapter 2
chapter 3
chapter 4
chapter 5
chapter 6
David Mccracken
Feb 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A clear book about a complicated subject. Sometimes dense and academic, but always with a strong voice. Frames the financialization of post-secondary eductation as similar to mortgage financialization (and other efforts to move from government supported services to a government supported predatory model). Does a great job of showing how the wide spectrum of for-profit students, from those getting relatively quick credentials to those getting PhDs, are similar in their need for credentials, the r ...more
Mar 12, 2017 rated it liked it
This book was a little too academic for my tastes. The author spent a lot of time repeating what she had covered earlier in the book. I was more interested in hearing about the ppl she talked to, than about credential theory or whatever. There's nothing really new here if you've seen the Frontline or 60 minutes segment on for-profit colleges. This was an okay book, but I felt it had the potential to be exceptional if it was written more like traditional ethnography. ...more
As I was sorting this book onto virtual GoodReads shelves, I thought to myself "I should really rename my social-justice-social-issues shelf books-about-the-world-that-make-me-angry." This book does make me angry, because Tressie McMillan Cottom does such an extraordinary job of exploring and explaining the growth of for-profit colleges--the way they deepen inequalities, take advantage of people who may not have access to traditional education or credentials, but also how their rise can also be ...more
Aug 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An absolutely fascinating study of the growth of for-profit colleges in the United States. Tressie McMillian Cottom does an excellent job of educating her readers on not just the educational aspect of these institutions, but also the changes in employment and social safety nets that have led us here. I appreciate the empathy which resonates through this work, as well as how much better informed I feel having read this book.

As a note, this book does read like a thesis — this format worked really
Jennifer K
Feb 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Must read for anyone interested in education in our nation! A gripping and intricate story of greed, betrayal, and larceny against students, brought to life by Tressie McMillan Cottom with precision and clarity.
Sep 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
All hail Tressie McMillan Cottom! She has done a tremendous amount of research to expose for-profit colleges for their predatory practices to enroll already struggling people of color into their schools. She uncovers how their marketing and recruiting schemes prey on students fears and insecurities and leave them even more in debt and poorly educated. I was aware of issues with for-profit colleges, but the personal account from Dr. McMillan Cottom (as a former recruiter) and the students she int ...more
Feb 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
I got along with this much better than THICK, I'm happy to say -- this was truly a thick sociological survey of the complexities around who for-profit institutions serve, how that market arose, and the intricacies of why students are looking for the credentialing services that those institutions provide. This was really thought provoking & a different lens to consider the changing labor market of the last 20 years... especially in considering who is or isn't included in the vision of "the jobs o ...more
Mar 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I work in higher ed and have always wondered how for-profit schools survived. They're more expensive, they aren't accredited---why would anyone pick them? This book does an excellent job of answering that question. One you read the book you not only understand but you see how they are successful. This is a fascinating and quick read. ...more
Colleen Chung
Sep 18, 2020 rated it really liked it
I always appreciate a good sociological take on socioeconomic issues and Lower Ed does not disappoint. Cottom sheds light on what most of us college graduates and academics don’t ever have to consider, specifically the circumstances that lead one to decide to attend a for-profit college that go beyond the personal. In an era of vast inequality, it is unsurprising that such enterprises arose to meet ever-growing job insecurity and the need to be credentialed. This “markets are the solution” menta ...more
Megan Graham
Sep 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
I loved how the author put the focus on the labor market that has caused the need for for-profit college instead of putting the blame on the colleges. Of course they deserve to be accountable for what they are doing, but also, we need to create a better society where employers take on more risk & responsibility for training workers instead of putting that responsibility on the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. This book does a fantastic job of explaining specific details of the for ...more
Excellent for drawing connections between predatory education and wider processes of risk shifting by employers.
Apr 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is a short and powerful book presenting McMillan Cottom's research on for-profit colleges and universities. I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand what's different about our current economy. I want to use it with my students at a traditional, not-for-profit university, but I don't think I can assign them a whole book in a survey course. Which part should I pick?

The introduction beautifully lays out the economic changes of financialization, explaining how the for-profit sector in

jasmine sun
Jul 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
this was fantastic - really rigorous ethnographic research into for-profit students and admissions, all contextualized in broader economic shifts. shows how for-profit college enrollment isn't because students can't make rational decisions; rather, it's about a society that increasingly burdens individuals (rather than companies) with the responsibility of investing in constant skill "upgrades" to fit the job market's latest needs. ...more
Apr 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a must-read for anyone interested in policy, education, and inequality. Cottom situates the rise of lower-ed (for-profit colleges) in the context of racial inequality, the risk shift from employers to employees over the neoliberal era, and the shift toward knowledge jobs. She goes inside the industry to show how and who they recruit. In fact, she worked at a for-profit college before getting her PhD. This is an important book and it's very well-written. ...more
Sep 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
"As it turns out, there is such a thing as "bad" education. It is an educational option that, by design, cannot increase students' odds of beating the circumstances of there birth." A masterpiece that should be read by every person working in higher education. ...more
Ken Saunders
Feb 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Marketing is fun to read about because it combines psychology and sociology with complete bullshit (or 'Bunk' as Kevin Young might call it). This book ties these together in its examination of education marketing, and even ultimately transcends the subject to tackle some fundamental causes of US economic inequality.

In spite of this big scope, it is well-organized, easy to follow, and always engaging. The writing includes personal anecdotes about the author's experience working for two for-profi
John  Mihelic
Feb 12, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Lower Ed is a Powerhouse of a book. Professor Tressie McMillan Cottom does an excellent job looking at the privatized education system in America.

It reminds me of my own time working as a student trying to get a certificate. I ran into people who had both been students and as professors and there's a certain type of student I really feel as if they're the ones being preyed upon by the system.

She covers it as well but there is a subset of ambitious African American women from backgrounds that a
Apr 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I thought this was a really good look into why some people choose to go to for-profit colleges. It might not be as interesting to anyone not in the field, but as someone who teaches full time at a community college (a college that is losing some of our students to for-profit colleges) it was interesting to see some of the reasons that might be. I think our administration should read this so that we can potentially better serve our students. ;-)

Flexibility and high-pressure "sales" seems to be ke
Dec 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Very interesting sociological account of for-profit schools. Well-written in the sense that Dr. Cottom described a phenomenon that is fairly ubiquitous and made it feel brand new without unnecessary novelty. She used plain language to get across complicated ideas, which was very helpful to me (I am the type who needs to re-read academic sentences constantly because I just don't get it, lol). The interviews with people in the process were enlightening because I think we all know at least some of ...more
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Tressie McMillan Cottom has been called "a master of metaphor" (Soraya McDonald), one of "America's most bracing thinkers on race, gender, and capitalism of our time" (Rebecca Traister) and "one of the finest public intellectuals writing today" (Roxane Gay). McMillan Cottom centers black women in uncommonly incisive analysis of social problems. She lives in Richmond, Virginia where she is an assoc ...more

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“When people talk about for-profit colleges, they often do so with a lot of disdain. If traditional colleges that take in a fraction of willing students every year annoy you, then you might be disdainful of their "prestige cartel." If you are concerned about vulnerable people making expensive educational decisions with little education, then you might disdain the "predatory" for-profit schools. If you think that a strong work ethic can trump all manner of troubles, you might disdain the "weak" people who go to a "predatory" school. What is interesting to me is how much disdain is spread among students and schools and how little disdain there is for labor markets.” 2 likes
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