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The New Press

For at least the past 10 years, traditional colleges have been closely watching the rise and fall of the for-profit sector. 

Some experts point to minimal regulation, heavy recruitment and a lack of student knowledge about college choices to explain why the for-profit sector became so popular and saw a boom in student enrollment in the mid-2000's. Others point to the Obama administration's increased regulation and students' knowledge of the higher education system as reasons for the for-profit sector's decline. But in Tressie McMillan Cottom's new book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy (The New Press), she points to another factor -- credentialism. 

Tressie McMillan Cottom, who is assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and is an active voice in the higher ed Twitter universe, formerly worked as a recruiter for two for-profit colleges. She responded to questions about the book and how the current economy could lead to a new, but troubling, era for for-profit education. 

Q: You connect for-profits with rising inequality. How does the sector benefit from inequality more so than the traditional or not-for-profit institutions? 

A: According to the sector itself, its business model relies almost entirely on there being more people who need a credential for work and mobility than there are opportunities for them to earn a credential or job training. Who can and cannot access that kind of path to mobility is a consequence of numerous inequalities: unequal access to high quality K-12 schools, wealth inequalities among families and communities, income inequalities between "good jobs" versus "bad jobs" and who has practical access to jobs that offer mobility without constant, expensive retraining. Because for-profit colleges are narrowly focused on job training, their business model is only practical if these inequalities continue. 

Q: You describe that part of this inequality is tied to the way our economy focuses on "risky" credentials. How has this made people vulnerable and has the completion agenda played a role in over credentialing and equity issues? 

A: Yes, the completion agenda has contributed to the ideology that we are all supposed to have a credential for quality work. But, the ideology predates the completion agenda. The completion agenda merely expands on an idea that is really a historical peculiarity, which is the idea individual workers should shoulder all the costs of job training. The employment sector (both public and private, by the way) leverages its market position in an economy with fairly high underemployment rates to tell workers that this is the case. To be competitive we are all told that we have to pursue and pay for credentials over our entire working careers. This is an especially pernicious risk shift from the employment sector to minority workers, who are already more likely to be unemployed and underemployed than are white workers. And, most minorities have less wealth than do white workers. The compounded effects are especially brutal for women of color who not only have negligible wealth but also care for extended networks on incomes that are, on average, less than that of white workers and all women workers.  For these reasons, the risk shift of job training, or credentialing, directly undermines equity agendas. I cannot see a way that any completion agenda that does not directly address how for-profit colleges have become the primary vehicle for higher education access among women of color can achieve any of its stated goals.

Q: For-profit advocates have argued that they have been the only institutions to offer a higher education to minority, low-income and non-traditional students. What options are there for this group of students, especially those who have been dissatisfied with the for-profit experience, but are left with debt and no degree?

A: They are correct. In the book, I am clear that for-profit colleges have a point about traditional not-for-profit higher education has not adjusted enough to accommodate non-traditional students. But, I am also clear that their take on that is disingenuous and cynical. Not-for-profit colleges aren't merely elitist. The institutions most likely to serve non-traditional students are also the most starved for political and economic capital. It is expensive to serve non-traditional students well, something for-profit colleges know is true. Our Catch-22 is that public money that supports public higher education flows instead to for-profit colleges, undermining not-for-profits ability to develop their capacity to serve non-traditional students. Then, those institutions are charged with being non-responsive. A new working paper by Stephanie Cellini, Rajeev Darolia, and Leslie J. Turner suggests that when for-profit colleges lose access to federal aid, those students instead go to community colleges. When they go, their resources go with them. By not admitting this, the for-profit college sector is being selective in its depiction of not-for-profit higher education.

But what are students' options? There are more flexible not-for-profit college options now than there were 20 years ago. To some extent, the rhetoric of the stodgy traditional not-for-profit college sector that won't change is outstripped by reality. Still, it is true that there aren't enough on-demand higher education options for all who would like them. However, I argue that this isn't a failure of higher education. It is a labor market failure and a social policy failure. Local workforce development, on-the-job-training, and union-sponsored education should have a more expansive role in job training. These are all better options for public investment than are for-profit colleges which provide negligible social benefits to the public and very poor individual returns to students. 

Q: One solution you point to is changing politics that weed out inequality. How do you see that happening given today's political climate and under a Trump presidency?

A: This is not a hopeful time for those of us who believe in a more fair social contract. All indications are that the Trump administration will either directly or indirectly support greater financialization of education, K-16. Among my colleagues in policy circles, there is a lot of discussion about how to position gains made during the Obama administration. That discussion is on-going.

I suspect the best hope is for external pressure from below, meaning local and state government as well as student and worker organizing. 

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