Professor Tressie Cottom, Ph.D, talks about her book, LowerEd

VCU’s Humanities Research Center held their monthly, “Meet VCU’s Authors” series featuring Tressie Cottom, Ph.D., on Feb. 22.

Cottom is a an assistant professor of sociology at VCU and has a highly successful website,, as well as a massive twitter following of people who are interested in her approachable manner to tackling large sociological questions. Cottom does the same in her nationally-awarded book, “Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy.”

Professor Tressie Cottom speaking to audience on the role of socioeconomics in the rise in for-profit college.

In addition to being an author and professor, Cottom is a writer for The Atlantic, has been featured on NPR and lectures across the nation largely about, but not limited to, topics of race and education access.

In Recent years the rise of for-profit colleges –  institutions which are driven by profit seeking private businesses – have become the fastest growing sector of higher education. According to the Department of Education, from 2013 to 2016, for-profit students comprised 26 percent of all federal loan borrowers, but 44 percent to 35 percent of total loan defaults.

Cottom’s book draws from her own experience as a former recruiter for a for-profit college, ITT Technical Institute, to delve deeper into the specific marketing strategies used by these companies to attract generally low income black and latino men and especially women.

Her lecture went beyond the details of how the book was made and addressed her own personal experience while researching over the span of a year and a half.

“This strange thing happens when you work on a book,” Cottom said. “You think the book is about the thing is you’re writing- and it kind of is. Then the book is released and what people want to talk about is, ‘Why you? Why this? Why did you want to talk about this strange thing?”

Cottom said the background information she compiled shocked her. For Cottom, education was something to be revered, and her first interaction with ITT Tech, where she was told she had to sell education like a product, shocked her.

She graduated highschool at 16 and attended North Carolina Central University on a full ride scholarship until she reached her senior year when she says, “I kinda just stopped going, I don’t even know why I just stopped.” Cottom explains, “one day turned into 10 then 15 which is why I know when my students start slipping away from me … because by day 16 it’s too late.”

The idea of involving personal narrative in the understanding of research was the theme of the night’s event. Richard Godbeer,  Director of VCU’s Humanities Research Center,  opened the event by telling attendees how he attended Oxford University with support from the UK’s social welfare programs. He graduated without debt which he described as, “transformational in a profoundly damaging way.”

In contrast, Cottom grew up in Eastern North Carolina and one point said, “If you’re going to think I’m brilliant, you’re going to accept the fact that I’m Southern” – challenging the traditional norms expected of academics in higher institutions.

Cottom explained throughout her lecture that for-profit colleges specifically market themselves to appeal to students like her who are labeled as non-traditional students. However, rather than enroll a student she became an enrolling recruiter herself.

“This what I was trying to understand: what about for-profit colleges have been organized to respond to a certain type of student?” Cottom asked. “Because that could give me an idea of why so many people were suddenly making the same decision to go to a for-profit college.”

During her lecture she explained that the language “for-profit” is never used and according to a Kresge Foundation poll, 67 percent of currently enrolled students in for-profit colleges have no idea that they are in-fact attending such an institution.

For Cottom, it wasn’t until a moment when a manager scolded her for talking too long to a potential student she realized this type of education was vastly difference the traditional colleges of higher education.

“If you can’t close them in 30 minutes you’re never gonna close them,” her manager said. “We are not a counseling center, we are a sales force.”

Cottom said during her year and half research for this book in Atlanta she was informed that the biggest competitor for these institutions isn’t community colleges or four-year universities, but rather the military. Wartime makes enlisting rather than enrolling more appealing for the potential for-profit student — often low-income people of color.

The for-profit college set-up is designed to initially seem faster and easier than enrolling at community colleges, especially in regard to financial aid. What is normally a month-long process at a traditional university – from paperwork and financial aid confirmation to entry tests – can be done at a for-profit in less than a day.

However, the average cost of an associate degree at a for-profit is $70,000 while an associates from a traditional community college is around $20,000.
Cottom, who speaks across the nation on issues in education, said politicians at the national level  are fully aware that many students of for-profit have invested in an education that leads to more debt, less jobs and lack of complete, competitive education. However, they’ve told Cottom that the government  won’t cancel their loans because it will lead to a “slippery-slope.”

Above all, Cottom explains nuanced topics of the economics of race and education in an easily accessible fashion which informed theottom does the same in her nationally-awarded book, “Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy.”audience of the sheer magnitude of the nuanced issues of race, class and socioeconomic in the increasingly privatized world of higher education.

Siona Peterous, Spectrum Editor


  1. I understand what she’s trying to say. But let’s face it, everyone don’t get a chance to go to a University! Not that their stupid but in highschool they probably didn’t value school and decided OK I need to graduate highschool and then college. But no acceptance, what do you do reapply! NO! Don’t some people get it, for profit (as if all schools aren’t) No one goes for free! So the big schools teacher must teach for free? No they don’t. So as long as a school is accredited and recognized by USDE and CHEA it’s ALL the same. It’s politics, not education with most people. It’s easy to put someone else down for what school they attend to make it look like you earned a more superior education. Blacks and Latinos are given an opportunity to become educated, that’s all that matters.

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