Tressie McMillan Cottom - Investigating For-Profit Colleges in "Lower Ed" - Extended Interview

March 8, 2017 - Tressie McMillan Cottom 03/08/2017 Views: 48,023

Tressie McMillan Cottom explains the business model of for-profit colleges and talks about how these schools prey on already-disadvantaged students in her book "Lower Ed." (7:31)

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Please welcomeTressie McMillan Cottom.

(applause and cheering)

-Really. -What a pleasureto have you on the show.

Well, thank you.

You keep saying that,and I'm starting to believe you.

-I... You should believe it.-(laughter)

I've been a fan of yoursfor a long time.

I've been a fan of yours whenyou take down trolls on Twitter.

Uh, I'm a fan of yourswhen I read your articles.

You know, the pieceyou wrote about Obama

-and hope and change...-Thank you.

...was really powerfulafter the election.

But today we're goingto talk about the book.

Education-- somethingI'm genuinely fascinated about.

For-profit colleges...

As you say in the book,many Americans aren't, like,

-familiar with what a for-profitcollege actually is. -Mm-hmm.

-Right. -In fact, some peopledon't even know

-that they're ina for-profit college. -Yes.

So, if you were to sum it upreal quickly,

what is a for-profit college,and what is the problem?

A for-profit college--really, officially,

its designation really justtalks about its tax status.

A for-profit college is one

that can extract moneyfrom the college

and distribute it to ownersas profit.


Whereas, not-for-profit collegesare constrained

in what they can dowith the money.

Theoretically, the money issupposed to stay in the college

and create a better learningenvironment for the students

and a work environmentfor the faculty and staff.

Well, for-profit collegescan do the opposite--

they can take the moneyout of the school.

Well, that's a problem if wethink that that relationship

to tuition--thinking of it as profit--

changes how the school works.

And I think thatthat's what happens.

Now, some people would argueand say,

why shouldn't somebodymake money from the school?

-Right. -I mean, if they'reproviding a service,

shouldn't they be compensated?

Compensation and profit areactually two different things.

Uh... profit becomes a problemin the education model

when the only wayyou can make profit

is to hold down costs.

Well, if the only thing thatyou're offering as a service

is education,there's only one thing

that you can do more cheaplyto generate a profit:


And so that's the reasonwhy we see, for example,

among many for-profit colleges,they will spend more money,

for example,on marketing and recruitment

than they doon curriculum and instruction.

That's whatthe profit motive does--

it shifts your interestto generating revenue

and awayfrom providing education.

That was somethingI didn't know about you

and, you know,I learned about in the book,

was that you worked as part ofthe recruitment at some point.

You know, you were part of this,

so you're speakingfrom experience.

It wasn't just about marketing,

it's about who the for-profitcolleges market to.

-Right.-When you were going out there,

and the for-profit colleges,trying to target people,

who are they trying to target?

Uh, well, they're tryingto target people,

uh, a few different people,and those groups of people

tend to have a lot in common,and they overlap.

So the first is when you hearthose phone-- you know,

th-those advertisementsthat say, you know,

"Pick up the phone today,

dial 1-800and change your life"?

Well, the first personwe're trying to target

is someone for whomthat message would work.

And we can think about who thatmessage might work for.

You need to changeyour life today

if you are very dissatisfiedwith it.

Well, that is whyfor-private students

-tend to be more likelyto be poor, -Mm-hmm.

working poor, unemployed,underemployed,

more likely to be women,

and more likely to beAfrican American and Hispanic,

than students in not-for-profithigher education.

Because of the wayour society works,

those are people who are verysusceptible to the message

that they could changetheir life today.

All they have to dois make one phone call.

But-but shouldn't educationbe the thing

-that changes your life?-Absolutely.

Isn't that the thing that peopleshould be aspiring to?

Absolutely,and if for-profit colleges--

I say this in the book,and I truly believe it--

If for-profit colleges weretransforming people's lives,

-I'd have never writtenthe book. -Yeah.

It-It would be an entirelydifferent situation.

But empirically, by now,

we've got about 15 yearsof data now to work with,

since the sort ofrapid explosion

of for-profit collegeshave happened.

And the data are pretty clear,

they are not transformingpeople's lives.

They are not transformingpeople's lives--

at least not for the better.

On average, uh,for-profit students

are more likely to drop out.

They are, even if they graduate,

they are more likelyto be unemployed,

and when they're unemployed,they're unemployed for longer.

We do not see this greatpositive response

in the labor market, they'renot paid more, frankly.

And that's what we think highereducation is supposed to do.

Like, everyone says that--everyone goes,

-"You go to college,you can earn more. -Mm-hmm.

-"You have the lettersbehind your name -Yes.

and that automaticallymeans you get more pay."

And in the bookyou dispute that,

and you-you havegreat evidence to...

Where does a person then go?If someone says,

-"Tressie, I want to studybecause I need a job. -Yes.

Are you saying I shouldn'tstudy at these places?"

Um, that is the...a very difficult question.

As one of the studentssaid to me, uh,

during one of the interviewsthat was really

one of the most emotionalfor me. Uh, you know,

I'm sitting across the tablefrom a black woman who,

but for some very different lifechoices, could have been me,

and we're both, I think,intimately aware of that fact.

And she says to me when I askher, "Why did you choose this?"

and she says, "Well, what am Isupposed to do?"

And, honestly, I didn'thave a very good answer for her.

And, in many ways,that's why I wrote the book.

To sh... demonstratehow people making

the exact right choices...Everything we've told people

-to do is part of what we callthe education gospel. -Yeah.

Go to school to not justhave a better life,

but really to bea good person, right?

A good, moral, upstanding personpursues education.

Well, people who have listenedto that, who've done everything

that we have prescribed,are still underemployed,

unemployed, indebted,because they have to take

that high riskcredential opportunity.

Well, that's not aboutpeople being stupid

or making a poor choice,that's about what we have made

the choices that areavailable to people.

And that's reallythe bigger issue to me.

When-when you look at it,and you talk about people

-who are specificallytargeted... -Yeah.

Uh, I've noticed, twice,that you've mentioned women.

Is it somethingthat affects women

or does it havea greater effect on women

than it-than it does on men?

Everythingthat we have done, uh,

to shape what women's experienceof the world is

has made women more susceptible

-to the for-profit collegemarketing plan. -Wow.

This is, for all intentsand purposes,

really, a genderedcredentialing scheme

for credentialsto do gendered jobs.

Health care, education.

So teaching, nurses' assistants,

-jobs that we associatewith women. -Mm-hmm.

Well, why does that workfor women?

Well, we can think about...On a day like today,

it's really nice to think about,for example,

what it means to be a womanin our society today.

For many of us, it meansthat we're not just taking care

of ourselves but we're theprimary caretakers for children.

And, increasingly, we'realso the primary caretakers

for our parents.

We are, in many ways,working three different shifts--

our paid work, our unpaid work,and our family work.

And what we've said to women is,"Yes, well, we also need you now

"to be equal economic partnersin your household

"for you to stay afloat, right,-Right.

"for you to keep the positionthat you have,

much less to move up, right,to invest in your own children."

Well, there aren't a lotof options for women to do that,

which is probably why we seesomething like 65% to 70%

of all people enrolled infor-profit colleges are women.

Wow. It's a powerful storythat I, honestly,

could talk to you,uh, for hours about.

But, luckily, I have the book,and, uh, I would recommend

everybody out there goes outand get it.

-It's a fascinating story. Thankyou so much. -Thank you so much

-for having me. -Thank youso much for being on the show.

-I hope you will join us again.-(cheering and applause)

Lower Ed is available now.

I suggest you go out and get it.

Tressie McMillan Cottom,everybody.