Credentialism and its discontents

McMillan Cottom, T. (2017). Lower ed: The troubling rise of for-profit colleges in the new economy. New York, NY: The New Press.

The Lower Ed project

In Lower Ed, Tressie McMillan Cottom explains how the recent boom and bust of for-profit higher education has been a direct result of economic dislocation. Public policy has responded to economic anxieties with one clear message: the primary and often only solution to your potential unemployment is to borrow money to go to college. For millions since 2000, that has meant enrollment in for-profit colleges and universities, and Lower Ed has a unique, persuasive portrait of the phenomenon.

As a sociologist, McMillan Cottom approaches for-profit higher education with broader questions: why would Americans take on thousands of dollars of loans to attend programs that others see primarily as disreputable and debt-inducing?

McMillan Cottom analyzed SEC reports of public for-profit university corporations, interviewed approximately one hundred for-profit college students in the Atlanta area, and then followed several dozen students in more depth, as well as using her experience as both a former for-profit college recruitment/admissions employee and covertly as a prospective student. Lower Ed thus mixes personal narrative, interview and participant-observation records, public records, and general sociological observations.

Based on her research, McMillan Cottom concludes that for-profit colleges and universities fill a space that no other social institution fills, either in education or in other realms. Faced with economic anxiety about their future, adults consider for-profit education as one of a small handful of routes to individual economic mobility. She views for-profit students as neither dupes nor sophisticated consumers; they are navigating economic anxiety with the best tools they see, and Lower Ed explains how for-profit higher education has fit into that toolkit.

Lower Ed‘s conclusions are based on the research, should drive conversations about the role of higher education in American society, and are accessible to readers (see teaching uses below). The book should help us change the way we frame college and universities in primarily economic terms, and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in American higher education.

I have one quibble with the book: in early printings, McMillan Cottom described historian Marvin Lazerson as an economist of education.1 This appears once in Lower Ed as she describes the thesis of W. Norton Grubb and Lazerson’s book The Education Gospel, and it would bother me less except that the insight of Grubb and Lazerson is an essentially historical one: Americans have chosen over time to invest education with all sorts of magical powers to solve social problems, and the urge to attend college is part of that historical legacy. For the most part, economists either follow a human-capital story (as in Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz) or a dyspeptic sorting one (as in Kenneth Arrow’s signaling argument). I am glad that McMillan Cottom found a more nuanced perspective useful; I hope it’s a primary value of the work from me and my fellow historians, including Lazerson.


Lower Ed contributes to three general bodies of literature. One is the discussion of contemporary higher education issues, especially but not only with regard to for-profit colleges and universities. The growth in for-profit enrollment after 1990 was spectacular after decades of being on the margins of higher education, with the type of mom-and-pop operation that was McMillan Cottom’s first for-profit job. After the post-1973 wave of deindustrialization and outsourcing of manufacturing, for-profits slowly learned how to become a default option for millions. For example, McMillan Cottom explains how for-profit recruitment/admissions operations make it easy to sign up for classes, faster and smoother than at any non-profit or public college and university.2 An annual cycle of admissions is appropriate for those who do not have economic anxieties; for those looking for a leg up now, for-profit colleges found an advantage.

The second area of contribution is to the broader discussion of credentialism in education.3 When I was researching and writing Creating the Dropout, there was already a bustling debate about the role of formal education in the labor market, and Lower Ed is the latest significant contributionIn my work, I found that high school graduation became a common expectation for teenagers in the middle of the 20th century; as a society, we created a new age-related norm in the same way that we created an expectation of retirement for older workers. Higher education is different; in reality, “traditional-aged college students” has always been a significant misnomer, and the growing expectation of college credentials requires a different historical explanation. Lower Ed briefly sketches out that explanation and then explores the human consequences of credentialism in higher education.

The third area of contribution is in the relationship between public and private spheres. At the end of Lower Ed, McMillan Cottom argues that the existence of federal loans that boost for-profit colleges and universities is a way to privatize the pain of economic dislocation: those who are most anxious about their future gain all the risk of loans while for-profit colleges and universities gain the immediate profit. In a blog post she argues that it is a form of financialized oppression.4 How widespread is this division of risk and gain through public policy? One might see parallel structures in the outsourcing of state prisons and toll roads, but American higher education may be unique in this division of risk and gain as a direct result of economic anxiety, at least at a first glance.

Teaching uses

I can imagine several ways one could use Lower Ed in classes. It is accessible, includes stories about for-profit students that will surprise a number of readers, and touches on the common concerns of college students worried about their own future. Class discussions can explore the arguments in the book and the methods used. It is appropriate for undergraduate classes in sociology, including lower-division “issues” classes. It should be read by doctoral students in both sociology and higher education programs, and it is recommended for masters students in higher education and public-policy programs.

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  1. According to McMillan Cottom, the error will be fixed in the fourth cloth print run and in paperback editions. []
  2. Matt Reed made the same observation in his book. []
  3. The title of this blog entry borrows from Stephen Vaisey’s 2006 article in Social Forces, Education and its Discontents. []
  4. Her blog is one of the few places where I have seen an attempt to apply the concept of financialization in a serious way to education. []