An informal sociological study of diploma mills and their often ripped-off discontents.
Before becoming a sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, sometime Slate columnist Cottom worked at a for-profit college whose machinations she came, once understanding them, to despise. In this slender book, she lays out a case against a system that engenders predation and that profits, in the end, from social and economic injustice. The unknown number of for-profit students—variously said to be between 1.2 million and about twice that many enrollees—pays about 20 percent more than at a “flagship public university” for an undergraduate degree but about four times more than an associate’s degree at a community college. What drives this preyed-upon class, whose members, the author rightly adds, are not necessarily academically inferior? In part, perhaps, the promise of a degree more easily attained than at a regular academic institution. However, writes Cottom, another factor is that most of these students, ill-educated to begin with, simply have no preparation in navigating bureaucracies and no way of gauging the difference between one school and the next, down to knowing what the cost might be. “Traditional colleges,” she writes, “benefit from a deeply entrenched cultural faith in the value of college, particularly among higher-status groups.” For the lower-status and the aspirational, college is a way of getting one’s ticket punched, to get a credential that might lead somewhere better. In the end, Cottom suggests, by their very existence, with reassuringly august names like the University of Phoenix and ITT Technical Institute (and, perhaps most notoriously, Trump University), these schools, which are often publicly subsidized to some extent, are “an indicator of social and economic inequalities and, at the same time, are perpetuators of those inequalities.”
Cottom does a good job of making the name “Lower Ed” stick, and she makes a solid case for reviewing the entire system of higher education for openness of opportunity.