Tressie McMillan Cottom is an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, faculty associate at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, and the author of Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy. She recently joined Hope Jahren, geochemist and geobiologist at the University of Oslo and bestselling author of Lab Girl, for a Heleo Conversation on the concerning changes in the higher education system.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Tressie: We only know how to talk about school as being a universally positive thing, [yet] what for-profit colleges have showed us, especially over the last 20 to 25 years, is that not all school is good school. Even when there’s empirical evidence that the school is not doing what we think a school should do—transforming your life, developing good citizens, increasing your earning potential, not leaving you indebted—even when schools aren’t doing that, we can’t say it, because we don’t know how. [School] has gotten more complex than our ideology and public conversation can allow.
Hope: Is it true that the for-profit [education system], just structurally, can’t work? An institution that’s beholden to its stockholders on a quarter-by-quarter basis is never going to be able to jive with the long term goal of enriching people as people? Is it as dark as that?
Tressie: Dark is exactly the right way to say it. I wrestle with this—especially over the last year or so, as this became a tougher business for for-profit colleges. Some of them changed their ownership model, moved from being corporate shareholder organizations, going back to being privately owned. One or two have became Public Benefit Corporations: this idea that we’re for-profit, but we don’t chase quarters, that that’s supposed to change things. But this is what I suspect: one of two things would have to happen for for-profit colleges to work, and neither of those are likely to happen.
In the first case, for-profit colleges probably can work when everybody has the same access to good quality K-12 schools. We see that internationally. There are societies—New Zealand, for example—that have a robust for-profit college sector, but not the same unequal outcome. Mostly because they are equally preparing [students]. When somebody chooses a for-profit vocational school in New Zealand, they’re not doing it because they have no other option. It’s just that this was the option to become trained in this location that they want. That keeps costs down, that keeps predatory behaviors down. The predatory nature emerges when profit meets inequality. We have to change one of those two things.
“Profit-seeking in an unequal society will always reproduce inequality.”
What I’m arguing is that we have shown ourselves to be very unwilling to address the poverty issue, the inequality issue. If we’re not addressing that, then we most certainly should not be incentivizing profit-seeking in education. Profit-seeking in an unequal society will always reproduce inequality. We’d have to change one of those two things.
It totally can work, it just works in systems that are not as unequal as ours. If we don’t address that, then we shouldn’t be investing public money in the for-profit model.
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Hope: “Profit seeking will always reproduce inequality”—is that a truism within sociology?
Tressie: Yeah, that’s a summary of almost all the sociology of education over the last 50 or 60 years. We don’t have many truisms in sociology, because people are very inconsistent, and that’s what we study. But we have a handful, and one of them is that education cannot fix inequality. We actually know that.
The fact that other public policy and public discussions keep talking about education that way makes every sociologist I know roll their eyes. Better education, more democratic education, more public education, hand-in-hand with other social policy programs, can absolutely transform inequality. But education by itself never can do it.
Hope: It’s like the old [saying]: “If voting really changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”
Tressie: Exactly. If really sending everybody to college is going to change everything, we’d get rid of the whole mechanism. We wouldn’t allow it.
Hope: So if you meet a family and they’ve got young ones about to leave high school, or older ones that are thinking about going back to school, and they’re good at a lot of different things and haven’t developed strong ideas about this place versus that place, what advice do you give now that you’ve worked for both kinds of institutions? Knowing all you know, how do you approach that?
Tressie: Not very well. This is what’s hilarious: I theoretically wrote the book about for-profit colleges and inequality, but nobody close to me in my life will listen to me. Nobody takes my advice. I’ve got, right now, two cousins and a good family friend involved in a for-profit college.
Hope: But the individual outcome is never necessarily a direct reflection of the general outcome, right?
Tressie: Yeah. [They] love to call me and say, “No, see. It worked for me,” and almost always it’s some combination of they didn’t need the credential to begin with, or their employer paid them a little more because they got the credential, but they haven’t yet had to start trying to repay the student loan debt.
I always say to them, “Yeah, things worked out well for you, mostly because you had this unique situation,” which is actually what I’m suggesting more people have, that employers should pay for things and workers shouldn’t. But that’s a really hard sale to get people to understand.
At the individual level, I try to tell people that I understand how constrained their choices are. I think that does matter, because I talked to a lot of students and mostly what they wanted to hear from people was not that their school sucked or their school was predatory or a scam. They wanted somebody to tell them, “Hey, I get it. You’re doing the best you can. You’re absolutely right. This is not fair.”
We never say that part, and I think we should, because it takes away a lot of the anger, resentment, and defensiveness, that only makes people more vulnerable to for-profit colleges. When people get defensive, they dig their heels in, and they’ll make anything sound like it’s working for them. I feel like we have to block the defensiveness, so I usually start by saying, “I get it, right? This sucks.” But then I try to talk to them about, “What is it you wanted this education to do for you? Not the school itself. But this education?” That’s a different question. Then, people will tell you things like, “I don’t want to work third shift anymore. I need a regular shift job.” Or they’ll say something like, “I’ve been stuck at the same level at my company. I’m watching everybody around me get promoted, and they seem to have Master’s degrees, so I must need one too.”
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Really, there may be other ways for them to accomplish that. It’s just that all anybody says to do is, “Go to school,” but nobody ever tells them how. So they go with the first place that tells them how to do it, and because for-profit colleges spend so much more money on that kind of outreach, they’re usually the ones that get there first.
“There’s almost nothing that you can do now at a for-profit college that you can’t do at your local not-for-profit.”
I tell them to never make an education decision within a 48 hour period. Give yourself three weeks to a month. As soon as you start making fast decisions, you’re in the for-profit model. You’re in their playground, because they’ve got the process down. They’re there for you to make quick decisions.
I try to encourage them to pursue all of the not-for-profit traditional higher education models that have emerged over the last decade that students usually don’t know exist. There’s almost nothing that you can do now at a for-profit college that you can’t do at your local not-for-profit. It just may be harder to find out about it. I talk them through that process and also tell them, “You’re better off getting an employer to pay for whatever an employer’s willing to pay for. Even if it’s not something that you really love. Extract as much from your employer as you possibly can. Get whatever certificates or training they will offer before you take the student loan route.”
Hope: The other thing I wanted to touch on is the rise of the internet. The constant pressure to offer everything from downloadable materials, handouts, to the entire course online, has been an interesting facet of for-profit. [For] people juggling things, especially moms, the idea that you can do your homework at two in the morning or have your group discussion on chat while you do the dishes, is a hard way to learn. But it’s attractive from a marketing perspective.
Tressie: There’s a reason why you see so much of that in the commercials.
Hope: It also allows the institution to weasel out of offering any infrastructure.
Tressie: That’s right. There are only a couple of ways to make higher education more cheap. When people are talking about, “Higher education needs to be more efficient,” what they mean by “more efficient” is less expensive. Less expensive to deliver. Less expensive for people to get.
That’s the internet’s great promise: it will remove every bureaucratic layer from every part of our life. That always sounds like a good idea until you’re the one standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, checking out your own groceries, and you’re responsible for pushing all those buttons. That’s the thing that the internet made more efficient. That, however, did not improve the quality of our life.
Hope: There used to be somebody employed standing there.
Tressie: There are lots of ways for us to make higher education more efficient, the same way we’ve made going to the supermarket more efficient. But, just like going to the supermarket now feels like being trapped in Hell, we run the risk of making our education feel like that.
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Hope: [Laughing] You really hate [checking out your own groceries!]
Tressie: It is totally undignified. I don’t live a life where I need to know the code for celery. That needs to be somebody else’s expertise. We can do that, but that in no way improves on what we think we’re improving upon. It makes money for people, as you point out; for the grocery store, it’s great. It got rid of a level of employment, and they save money on the worker. The same thing is true in higher education. We could save money if we got rid of faculty, sure, if we got rid of things like the counseling center or the writing center, but that’s not the point. So yeah, the internet provides lots of opportunities for some stuff, but not the stuff that they usually want us to use it for.
Hope: I want to get back to The Gospel of Education, because I think that’s so important. If you don’t get anything else from [Lower Ed], really sit with: what is The Gospel of Education? How has it affected my own life? How does it play out among different communities? It’s such a big concept because it does make us so terribly trusting that any education is good education, more is always good.
In light of the fact that education can serve to reinforce inequality, should we be changing the way we pass on The Gospel of Education to each other, in our families and in our communities? Do we need a more cynical view of education?
Tressie: I would hope not more cynical, but I think about it a lot. When I go home to visit my family for the holidays, we’re good Southerners, so that means we go to church on Sunday. I’ll sit with them and watch the minister deliver the sermon, and I think about how the sermons say lots of hard truths that somehow make the people in that room feel better. There must be a way for us to do that. We just have not revisited it in our public discourse in a long time, and I’m arguing that it’s time for us to do that.
I’m not sure yet what that message is, but I think it must be something akin to “Listen, put your faith in our collective public education.” We could just amend The Gospel to say “public,” and I think it would still have the same resonance, but would also prompt people to think more critically about whether or not what they’re pursuing is part of the public good. Because that’s what ultimately drives how predatory an institution is.
I do think that it’s important not to make people more cynical, but to make them more thoughtful, because cynicism undermines the education imperative. It’s hard to pursue education and be in a space of learning while you’re cynical, and I wouldn’t want to do that. I don’t want education to become a cynical good. That only makes us more vulnerable to the market when we degrade education to that point.
I have to believe there’s a way for us to talk about education in a more thoughtful way, and I think it can’t be much harder than convincing people that the Old Testament God was smiting you for your own good. There’s got to be a way.