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Lower Ed

The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy

The New Press, 2017 more...

Editorial Rating



  • Controversial
  • Comprehensive
  • Eye Opening


Tressie McMillan Cottom worked in enrollment at two for-profit colleges and wrote her doctoral thesis about their growth and the increasing role credit and debt play in the sector. She enrolled in nine of these institutions to study their appeal and approach. Based on her experiences and research, she creates a definitive overview of for-profit education, and explains why many who are in the system don’t understand it, what economic role such colleges play and who joins their student bodies. Her approach is scholarly, so some broader explanations and definitions might help. While noting that the opinions expressed are those of the author, getAbstract recommends her cautionary overview to adult learners, HR managers, job trainers and those forecasting the availability of talent.


What Are For-Profit Colleges?

People who study or work at for-profit colleges frequently misunderstand them. Author Tressie McMillan Cottom first worked as an “enrollment officer” at a “for-profit college” in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area. She helped hundreds of students begin their relationships with for-profit higher education. She learned it was critical not to call herself an “admissions officer” because the school enrolled students; it didn’t admit them. She also worked at a technical college that offered degrees in business, criminal justice and technology. Her responsibility was to hold a prospective student’s hand through the enrollment process and its milestones: the initial call, the campus tour, payment of the enrollment fee, a skills assessment, program selection, a financial aid application and showing up for class.

For-profit colleges can be small mom-and-pop operations or large brands with campuses across the United States. Historically, they’re under private ownership, and are usually run as family businesses or held by “single practitioners.” Most are small, but the large, familiar for-profit schools, like the University of Phoenix...

About the Author

After working at and researching for-profit colleges, Tressie McMillan Cottom, PhD, studied the for-profit education sector in graduate school. Now an assistant sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, she writes for The Atlantic, Slate and The Washington Post.  

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