Monday, July 6, 2020

Tressie McMillan Cottom "Lower Ed": Book Review


Having worked at two for-profits, then attaining her sociology doctorate writing on this cohort, Tressie McMillan Cottom carries the "credentials" needed for her examination of a sector comprising over 10% of recent college students. Expanding her dissertation, it is the first in-depth study beyond academia that I am aware of, that covers more than default rates on loans, corporate models, stockholders, or legal ramifications. (She addresses these). Dr. Cottom interviews over a hundred people within this market-funded industry. "These shareholder for-profit colleges are the institutions whose tuition rates appear to be pegged to maximum student loan limits, arguably to extract as much profit from students who can borrow the most because they have the least amount of assets and the fewest college choices." This is a factor that might be attributed to non-profit private colleges too, or nearly so, given perpetual tuition increases. Still, one aspect that Cottom elides is the actual cost of educating a student at a for-profit vs. a traditional institution. For-profits claim that state institutions receive taxes, private ones enjoy endowments, and both elicit alumni donations, unlike their own sector. 18% of their budgets go to "instruction" and 23% for recruitment. "The risk for changing jobs and moving up the professional ladder has shifted to individual workers across race, class, and gender. That risk makes credentials valuable only insofar as those credentials are easy to start, easy to fit into complex lives, and easy to pay for. For-profit colleges nail that trifecta for millions of people who are similarly vulnerable in this new economy of risk shift." She seems spot-on here, but professors merited more. "Visiting faculty" frequently work at for-profits and traditional institutions, at multiple locations. What's the impact? Cottom labels this product as "risky credentials." She overlooks results: how do employers, or graduate schools beyond the for-profit's own, regard such degrees? Are they respected? "Fundamentally, institutions that can turn inequality into profit even when we, citizens and persons, would agree that it is immoral for them to do so provide a far more interesting and powerful account than the impact of any single actor. This, I conclude, is the case with the troubling rise of Lower Ed." These ethics invite debate. Assuming nobody is rejected who can come up with a way to pay, and as tuition is linked to the maximum (usually as not grants but lucrative loans, boosting any provider's prospectus) amount the government (i.e. taxpayer) funds, is this immoral? Trade school lobbyists counter they serve marginalized millions.         The pressure to finance a certificate or degree means that already strapped and overwhelmed students comprise and invest in themselves within a compliant demographic. One they want to rise above. Students may add to their woes by taking on fees that may add up to as much as an elite school but which put them at a "cumulative disadvantage." Debt hobbles millions. “We are not an admissions office. We are a sales force.” As this testimony from an enrollment division's supervisor attests, potential and present students are customers. Their intellectual potential is almost never mentioned. As to increasingly all-online education; it can't be that more expensive to instruct a large class by remote media. If so, why not explore profit gain? What advantages vs. disadvantages result? Are all degrees equivalent in merit? Do any for-profits improve this model? Are quality control and rigor enforced?    "Cost savings were reserved for investors, never for students, as shareholder for-profit colleges kept tuition rates sufficiently high to extract maximum federal student aid dollars." Here’s the crux. Government financial aid wasn’t set up to benefit stockholders rather than needy folks.       "In the case of the new economy, the labor market ethos is clear: more, better, faster workers produced cheaply at little to no expense for companies and speculators. As the public, we once chose to let shareholder for-profit colleges promise to do just that. The evidence is in on that promise. For-profit colleges do not have employment or wage returns that justify their cost to either students or our public system of financial aid." Few voters realize how this sector took advantage, being a business and not a charity, true, of this production line. Ongoing enrollment and rapid matriculation generate metrics. If this clientele is not catered to by traditional schools, Cottom argues, for-profits will proliferate. Lower Ed appeared while the previous administration sought tougher oversight; said sector fought back in lobbying, and in soliciting students to overwhelm legislators with testimonials. Promotion of job placement rates and levels of income for graduates were examined. A year after her book was written, enforcement ebbed. But this past decade, growth dipped in this sector as traditional institutions diversify. One reliable market pursued is the military, for the financial aid students here receive is not counted under the limit (90%?) that the government caps as a total amount. A loophole used to advantage by many for-profits.      "He could count on easy access to financial aid refunds and an online class structure with an underground economy of coursework that could be bought or borrowed." This aside from a student who "works the system" deserved emphasis. Standardized curricula and textbook-generated exams create "learning opportunities" which savvy students exploit. This aspect is not likely scrutinized by overseers; it's easier to keep lessons basic, for hiring. Faculty can be placed quickly and courses roll out efficiently—mass production at work.      "One of the for-profit colleges’ great disruptions is to the role of faculty, who are rarely expected to be active researchers. Research in for-profit colleges is more likely to fall under ‘marketing’ as opposed to 'academics.”' Few institutions provide physical libraries or labs. Faculty may lack access to paywalled databases. Duties and teaching loads tend to exceed courseloads at traditional universities for "hired at-will" faculty. This sector favors professors who are also active in their fields and therefore non-tenured. Is this hiring a negative or a positive preference?         "How can a college that is honor-bound to extract excess tuition remediate the interlocking, systemic, entrenched, and inheritable conditions of poverty, near-poverty, and inequality?" Excellent question. For-profits may re-brand as education providers or corporate contractors. But moral debate continues. Defenders assert that those left out of traditional education need a leg up. Critics wonder why this assistance comes at a hefty price tag, and who foots this bill.      "Time has become the commodity being traded for institutional prestige." After all, this ambitious audience responds to data-driven recruiters. A schoolteacher takes on debt that can reach hundreds of thousands for an online advanced degree. This risk of expense is trumped by the accelerated, incessant open enrollment, and the chance that such degrees will meet with the acceptance rates equivalent to selective schools. That student's gamble is why for-profits extend their offer to invite customers to the degree-gaming table. (Amazon US 9/20/17 in slightly different form--sorry about the paragraphing or lack of above in transition to this blog)

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