How For-Profit Colleges Sell 'Risky Education' To The Most Vulnerable

Originally published on March 29, 2017 8:52 am

For-profit colleges have faced federal and state investigations in recent years for their aggressive recruiting tactics — accusations that come as no surprise to author Tressie McMillan Cottom.

Cottom worked as an enrollment officer at two different for-profit colleges, but quit because she felt uncomfortable selling students an education they couldn't afford. Her new book, Lower Ed, argues that for-profit colleges exploit racial, gender and economic inequality.

Cottom tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that for-profit institutions tend to focus their recruiting on students who qualify for the maximum amount of student aid. "That happens to be the poorest among us," she says. "And because of how our society is set up, the poorest among us tend to be women and people of color."

Though for-profit colleges hold out the promise of a better future, Cottom notes that the credentials they offer tend to be 30 to 40 percent more expensive than the same credentials from a nonprofit public institution. What's more, she says, students at for-profit institutions often drop out before completing their degree, which means many students are left mired in debt and with credits that are not easily transferable.

"The system that we've come to rely on to increase access to higher education to the most vulnerable among us really only compounds their poverty and their risk factors," Cottom says. "That's the exact opposite of what higher education is supposed to do."


Interview Highlights

On what the enrollment process was like when she was working at a for-profit college

The process starts with the first phone call. So when you see those ads that say, "Call 1-800 such-and-such to change your life today," when you call that number someone like me would answer on the other line. And the first thing we would do was to try to get as much of your contact information and your demographic information as possible, because we needed to know how to find you.

Once I had gotten that information, my next goal was to get you to visit the school as quickly as possible, and I mean in the next 24 to 48 hours. ... To sign up for school, they had to physically sign what we called an enrollment agreement. So having them physically there removed all of the barriers to them not signing up. ...

Once that decision [to enroll] had been made, all of your other decisions were made for you. ... We ordered all of your books; we handled all of your financial aid paperwork for you; we ordered your high school transcripts for you. The process from the point of contacting someone like me at the technical school to the first time you could show up for the first day of class was, on average, about two weeks. It's a pretty rapid process and part of making the process rapid was to have someone like me holding your hand throughout.

On why for-profit colleges are more expensive than nonprofit colleges

The only way they have to generate revenue or profit is from tuition. So if you're a financialized organization or a corporate shareholder-owned, for-profit college that relies on tuition growth to generate your profit, the only way you can do that is to keep increasing costs. So they tend to peg the tuition costs to the fully allowable amount that students are allowed to borrow from the federal student aid program.

On when she started to feel conflicted about working at a for-profit college

When I saw relatively poor and low-income students deciding to take on both [federal] student loan debt and private student loan debt and inviting in their family members to cosign on additional loans — so sort of spreading their risk around into their social networks so that they could afford this education — I really started to ask whether they could ever afford it at all. Should they have been there if they had to go through all of those steps to afford the tuition?

On what happens when students drop out of a for-profit college

Debt has made our choice of higher education options far riskier than they were 20 or 30 years ago. And in the for-profit college sector that's especially acute because those students are more likely to be poor or low-income or sort of dancing along the line of poverty. ... Because of that, for-profit colleges really aren't set up to transform these students' lives in the way that we think higher education is supposed to do. ...

What we see in the for-profit college sector is those students drop out with more debt, making it harder for them to return, especially if they have problems repaying that debt while they are out of school. ... When they do return, it is easier for them to return to another for-profit college because those credits earned ... are not as portable. So in many ways what happens is that the students in the for-profit college sector are really cycling in and out and through the for-profit college sector, which we know is more expensive, where they will incur more debt and where they have lower outcomes when they graduate, if they ever do graduate.

On how for-profit colleges exploit the belief that all education is good education

Education is foundational to the narrative of social mobility in this country. ... Probably nothing is more American than the idea that, through hard work, everybody can separate themselves from the circumstances of their birth; through achievement and hard work we can all get ahead. ...

People actually believe in that — even poor people who have very little reason to believe in it because they've gone to relatively poor K-12 schools and had negative experiences. Over and over again, I heard people espousing their faith in education. ...

The problem is when our education gospel doesn't make a distinction between good education and risky education. And here in that gap is where for-profit colleges flourish. ... If we say there's no such thing as "bad school," it makes a job like the one I once had at the technical school much easier to do. It is easy [to] sell people when they ... [don't] understand the idea that school could actually leave them worse off than when they started.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. For-profit colleges are back in the news. The industry had faced federal and state investigations for the ways they recruited students, especially people of color and women, people who were struggling financially and convinced them to enroll and sign up for federal student loans they'd be unlikely to be able to pay off. At the height of the recession, for-profit colleges accounted for nearly half of student loan defaults. The Obama administration sued one major for-profit college for deceptive advertising, sued another for predatory lending and challenged the status of the largest accreditor of for-profit colleges. The Trump administration has a more favorable view of the sector.

My guest Tressie McMillan Cottom is the author of a new book about for-profit colleges called "Lower Ed." She worked as an enrollment officer for two for-profits at opposite ends of the spectrum - a cosmetology career school and a large college that offered associate's, bachelor's and graduate degrees. She left after fearing that instead of helping the students she recruited to improve their financial future, she was leaving them with large student loan debt they'd never earn enough to repay.

When she left the for-profit college sector, she returned to college, completed her B.A. and went on to earn her Ph.D. from Emory University. Her dissertation was a study of for-profit colleges. Cottom is now an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Tressie McMillan Cottom, welcome to FRESH AIR. So describe the kind of new for-profit colleges that you write about. What separates them from other colleges?

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: New for-profit colleges are really as much about where our society is right now as it is about the schools themselves. So one of the things I had to sort of tackle in this book is that for-profit colleges are not new. They have existed for almost as long as higher education has existed in the United States. But there was a sense that for-profit colleges had increased their dominance. And I was trying to figure out why that sense existed and if it was related to fact. And what I find, like others have found, is that it is.

While for-profit colleges have existed for a long time, we have not always had corporate for-profit colleges. Now for-profit colleges, starting around the mid-1990s, are no longer owned by, like, mom and pop local chains. Increasingly, they were owned by shareholder corporations, so they had become a financial vehicle. Because they are a financial vehicle, the way they operate and their relationship to profit and education had shifted. And that was part of - that's part of my larger argument. Now, the questions that come out of that is but does that matter?

GROSS: But can I stop you a second? So you're saying that a lot of colleges - a lot of the for-profit colleges now exist to make a profit and that's their priority over education?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Correct. And not just - they've always existed to make a profit. It's the scale of profit that is quite distinct. A corporate shareholder college has to not just make a profit at the end of the year, but it needs to make a profit quarter over quarter. And over the long term, that growth - there needs to be substantial growth. That's just what a corporation is designed to do.

GROSS: So what function are the for-profits supposed to serve within the larger world of educational institutions?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: And now that's - that, for me, was sort of the big question. Because if they've existed for a long time and if millions of people go to them and if we subsidize them to the tune of 13 to $14 billion a year, then they must be serving a purpose. In higher education, the purpose they serve is sort of twofold. First, they provide some training and professions that traditional not-for-profit colleges either can't provide or it would be too expensive for them to provide. So that's things like a certificate in auto mechanics or a certificate in cosmetology, those types of regulated professions that don't require a full degree, but do require some formal training.

Well, it's kind of expensive actually to offer those programs at scale because they're so hands-on. You really fundamentally have to build, usually, a laboratory for the students to get their applied experience. Most not-for-profit colleges have gotten out of that business. The second purpose I found was a little less obvious and less discussed sort of in the public discourse. And that is they are serving - for-profit colleges are serving a role in credentialing or giving a degree or credential to workers who are increasingly unemployed or underemployed in the new economy.

So as workers need to constantly get training to stay employable in the labor market, not-for-profit higher education isn't really set up for that. We're set up for a one-and-done scenario. You come, you get the credential, the credential is going to, you know, send you off into life to improve your life chances. And ideally, you never come back to us. Well, for-profit colleges are set up for students to constantly come back and get the new credential so that they can stay employed.

GROSS: So you're suggesting that in the world we live in now, in a lot of professions, you have to keep going back and get further training or further accreditation and that it's often the for-profit colleges that provide that.

MCMILLAN COTTOM: That's right. For-profit colleges, in many ways, are providing the job training that employers once did but no longer do.

GROSS: So you're suggesting now that you used to be able to get that on the job, but now you have to pay for it.

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Correct.

GROSS: And what's the - is tuition the right word? What's...

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes.

GROSS: What do you have to pay at most of the for-profit colleges? Like, what's...

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes, tuition is the right word. On average, the degree - whatever the degree is, whether it's in a certificate or it is an associate degree, a bachelor's degree or a master's degree, at every level of credential, for-profit colleges on average are about 30 to 40 percent more expensive than the same credential in the same program at a not-for-profit public institution.

GROSS: Why is that?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: So there are a couple of reasons why for-profit colleges would be more expensive. The first is all that stuff that we critique traditional colleges for doing - having dorms, having community space because they have large campuses - for-profit colleges don't have that. So they say that they're more cost-effective. But the flip side of that is the only way they have to generate revenue or profit is from tuition. So if you're a financialized organization or a corporate shareholder-owned, for-profit college that relies on tuition growth to generate your profit, the only way you can do that is to keep increasing costs. So they tend to peg the tuition cost to the fully allowable amount that students are allowed to borrow from the federal student aid program.

GROSS: So this creates a situation where it's typically people who don't have a large income, often people who are people of color, single-working parents who end up in these schools, but they cost a lot of money. So you have people, you know, without a lot of income paying really large fees for tuition. So what kind of situation does that create?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: The situation that that creates is that because of how we finance higher education in this country because we rely so much on student loans - that are what we call means-tested, meaning you can qualify for more money the less money you have. Well, we designed it that way so that those with the least amount of resources could increase their educational choices and options because they could borrow more.

Well, the problem in the for-profit college sector is that means that the poor students can borrow the most. Well, that creates an incentive for for-profit colleges to recruit students who will qualify for the maximum amount of student aid. Well, those happen to be the poorest among us, and because of how our society is set up, the poorest among us tend to be women and people of color. So the indirect effect of this is that women, especially women of color, are the most vulnerable to the incentives that have been set in place for revenue and profit-taking among for-profit colleges.

GROSS: Do a lot of people end up dropping out and being in debt?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes. About 30 to 40 percent of the students who enroll in a for-profit college will complete. To be fair, poor students especially have a really difficult completion statistics no matter where they go to school. Some of that is about how complicated we know people's lives are when they don't have a lot of money - right? - when you have to stop in and out because you have day care needs or your work schedule changes - those kinds of things. Complicated lives are hard to fit higher education into.

The question I ask is, yes, but is the risk worth it? In public higher education, the risk tends to be worth it when students drop out for a couple of reasons, the first being they drop out with less debt. So when their lives become a little less complicated and they want to return to school, they have easier access coming back because they haven't borrowed so much.

The other thing that happens is that if you drop out of a traditional not-for-profit college, the credits you have earned tend to be more portable. Other schools accept them. So when your life becomes a little less complicated and you want to go back to school, you have more options if you went to a traditional not-for-profit college.

What we see in the for-profit college sector is those students drop out with more debt, making it harder for them to return, especially if they have problems repaying that debt while they are out of school. So in many ways, what happens is that the students in the for-profit college sector are really cycling in and out and through the for-profit college sector, which we know is more expensive, where they will incur more debt and where they have lower outcomes when they graduate - if they ever do graduate.

GROSS: So these college are supposed to be the education that offers people a path to a better job, a better life, a higher status.

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Right.

GROSS: But if you end up having to default on a loan or if you end up being, you know, in debt because of a loan, what happens?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Your options for education are pretty much foreclosed upon. Debt has made our choice of higher education options far riskier than they were 20 or 30 years ago. And in the for-profit college sector, that's especially acute because those students are more likely to be poor or low income or sort of dancing along the line of poverty, as I say it. Right? Even if they're not poor at the moment, they have a lot of risk factors for dropping below the poverty line.

Because of that, for-profit colleges really aren't set up to transform these students' lives in the way that we think higher education is supposed to do. And so for me, the consequence of that is this system that we've come to rely on to increase access to higher education to the most vulnerable among us really only compounds their poverty and their risk factors. Well, that's the exact opposite of what higher education is supposed to do.

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Tressie McMillan Cottom. And her new book is called "Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise Of For-Profit Colleges In The New Economy." We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Tressie McMillan Cottom. Her new book, "Lower Ed," is about the new kind of for-profit colleges. She actually worked as an enrollment officer at two such colleges and then went to grad school and did her doctoral dissertation on the growth of the for-profit college sector, which she now says exploits racial, gender and economic inequality.

Do most of the student loans that are taken out for for-profit colleges come from the government? Are they government loans?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes, 97 percent of the students who attend a for-profit college rely on the student financial aid system.

GROSS: So does that mean that the for-profit colleges are very reliant on government loans?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Almost entirely reliant on the student aid system. We don't have a for-profit college sector were it not for the Federal Student Aid system and the fact that they have access to it. Almost all of their profits - so whenever you hear one of these staggering statistics about how much profit some place like the University of Phoenix has made in any given year, just assume that the majority of that has come from Federal Student Aid dollars, and you will almost always be right.

GROSS: And there's a cap on the amount of loan any one student can get over time from the government.

MCMILLAN COTTOM: That's right. Over the lifetime - assuming that you go to graduate school, etc. - I talked to many of these kinds students who are close to what they called maxing out, meaning they have borrowed somewhere close to $135,000 over their lifetime. So there's a lifetime limit for how much a person can borrow from the student aid system. And what we find is that there are more students enrolled in for-profit colleges who are close to maxing out of their lifetime limits of student loan eligibility, which means somewhere around $134,500, I believe it is now.

GROSS: President Obama tried to regulate some aspects of for-profit colleges. What regulations were put in place during the Obama administration?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: The first was not so much new regulations but more attention to existing regulations. And he did strengthen the gainful employment regulation, which is the one that is the most contested in the for-profit college sector. And that is this regulation that, by the way, does not just apply to for-profit colleges. It applies to all schools, both not-for-profit and for-profit that offer what we call career training programs, so any program that explicitly says it will provide training for a specific job.

If you provide one of those programs, what the gainful employment regulation says is that you have to have proof that students who graduate from your program actually get the job that you say you trained them for. For-profit colleges have been very resistant to this even though, again, community colleges have to adhere to the same guideline.

But for-profit colleges have really resisted the idea of gainful employment because they say it is unfair to ask of them that they adhere to this statistic when they serve such poor students or disproportionately serve poor students. And their argument is these are students who are always going to have a difficult time getting a good job, and we shouldn't be held responsible for their difficulties once they go through our program.

The other one was the Obama administration paid a lot of attention to how for-profit colleges use job statistics in their marketing and their recruitment of prospective students. So what we found was that for-profit colleges would often make promises about how secure the jobs were that they were training students for. And what the Obama administration said was that, no, there had to be some sort of truth in advertising with those statistics. And that one is slightly less contested than the gainful employment regulation.

GROSS: So Betsy DeVos, the new secretary of education under President Trump - what's her position on private - on for-profit colleges?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Betsy DeVos has said broadly that she believes in market-based solutions to education. Now, normally when she's saying that - because as the secretary of the Department of Education, she's responsible for K-16. And I do think that most of her focus has been on K-12. But it is the case that if you are in favor of market solutions to higher education because you think it's important for public higher education to have more competition, which is what she has said, then you probably also believe it's true for higher education. And so it appears that this administration, by all accounts, is in favor of increasing access to both Federal Student Aid dollars, decreasing regulation of for-profit education providers and not as aggressively pursuing the regulations that are currently on the books.

GROSS: She has at least a couple of people in - who she has brought into the department, the Department of Education, who are not only advocates of for-profit education but have worked in that sector. One was a former lobbyist for an association for for-profit colleges. And he recently resigned, I think after it was revealed in the press that he had such a connection, you know, that he had been a lobbyist for for-profit colleges. And the other person is her special assistant Robert Eitel. I think I'm pronouncing that correctly. Tell us what you know about him.

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Robert Eitel is coming from Bridgepoint Education, which has - is one of those corporate owners of several for-profit college brands. So it has been a shareholder corporation. So it's one of those that I talk about being an investment vehicle. During his time at Bridgepoint and continued - still currently true - Bridgepoint has been found guilty of running afoul of several regulations, has had to pay significant fines for doing so and has been very active in, again, lobbying against the gainful employment regulation.

So the concern here is whether or not those who have actively resisted and lobbied against the regulations of the for-profit college sector - which, by the way, are put in place to protect the integrity of the student aid system - whether those same people should now be in charge of defending the student aid system against for-profit college excesses.

GROSS: Donald Trump had Trump University. Did Trump University fit the description of the kind of for-profit colleges you write about?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: No, no, no. In many ways, Trump University is even more cynical (laughter) than the for-profit colleges that I talk about and write about. And this is what I mean by that. Trump University didn't even pretend to set up an actual school. What Trump University really did was it traded on the public's faith in the word university and used the word university as part of its brand.

But there was no campus, for example. They never pursued any license to actually operate as a school. One of the best ways, actually, to think about Trump University is that it was a lot like a timeshare sales organization than it was an actual school. But what I think that Trump University does tell us about this administration is sort of how cynical they are about higher education. It tells us something, I think, about their position on public higher education. I think that they have signaled pretty strongly that they are not interested in defending public higher education as important to democracy and the public good. And I think this president's experience with sort of using the word university, trading so cynically on the public's faith in the word university - kind of gives us an indication of how he views higher education.

GROSS: My guest is Tressie McMillan Cottom, author of the new book "Lower Ed." We'll talk about her experiences working as an enrollment officer at for-profit colleges after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Tressie McMillan Cottom. Her new book, "Lower Ed," is about for-profit colleges, which she says often exploit racial, gender and economic disparity by recruiting people who are struggling financially and leaving them with large student loans that they can't pay off. Cottom worked as an enrollment officer at two for-profit colleges before she returned to school to complete her B.A. She went on to earn her doctorate. Her thesis was about for-profit colleges. She's now an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Let's talk about your experiences working at for-profit colleges. You worked as an enrollment officer at a cosmetology school and after that at a technical college. What's the difference between the kind of accreditation each of those places provides, like what function they serve who their students are?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Right. So the cosmetology school which I call the beauty school throughout the book really represents that older type of for-profit college. These are the ones that are offering very specific and narrow career training that does require some type of certificate. So in the case of the cosmetology school, we offer the certificate that the students needed to sit for the state board exams to become a licensed cosmetologist, so you don't need a college degree for that. You don't really even need an associate's degree.

You really just needed to meet the licensure requirements of the state, and that's actually still fairly common for many professions that we think of as being good quality, blue-collar jobs. For example, you know, truck driving, etc. have these licensure requirements and, well, you have to get that training somewhere. So because they offer federal student aid to pay for that tuition, we were accredited, but accredited through a body that specifically accredited schools that were offering this sort of narrow career training.

And contrasts at the technical school, we were offering degrees that, you know, for all intents and purposes were the same degrees being offered in traditional higher education. So that was associate's, bachelor's, and master's degrees in things like engineering, business and criminal justice. So, again, things that sound very familiar to those of us who have gone to traditional higher education. Because they sound familiar to us, we would assume that they have the same type of accreditation that traditional higher education has, and we did with some differences. And that's what allowed us to offer federal student aid to our students who attended.

But unlike those students who were coming to the cosmetology school, we were not making direct connections at the technical school to a job. We weren't saying that we were going to train you, for example, for a job called criminal justice because that actually isn't a job, right? What we were training you for was a sort of broad based skill set that would qualify you for any job related to criminal justice. Well, that gets a little bit more difficult, I think, and more complex than the schools like the beauty school which are qualifying you to sit for an exam to actually do a job.

GROSS: Why is it different?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: It's different because what we rely on for that to work. So if we just think about when we apply for a job for those of us who've attended college, how rare it is when we apply to - for a job for them to actually sit us down to demonstrate that we know the skills that we say we know. What we rely on instead usually in that process is for someone on the other side, usually the hiring manager, to look and say, oh, this person has a good degree from a good school. And we trusted that means this person is generally knowledgeable and can be trained in the specifics of this job.

Well, all of those assumptions, those good faith assumptions about our degree have not been proven to be true of the degrees that students were earning from a place like the technical college. The question was is the labor market, are hiring managers looking at the Bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the for-profit technical college with the same good faith that they are extending to traditional degrees? And what we have found - the numbers don't bear out that they are.

Well, if that's the case, then the students who are assuming that they are getting a degree that will operate just like any other degree really aren't, and the schools because they are not - they don't have any incentive to tell the students differently - are not encouraging the students to know about that difference when they choose to enroll in a place like the technical college.

GROSS: So you have a lot of concerns now about the value of a diploma from an institution like a technical college where you worked as an enrollment officer. Did you have those kinds of questions at the time?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Oh, goodness, no. Mostly I had some feelings, but not questions. Questions would assume that I was a different kind of person, right? In many ways, when I worked at the technical school and at the cosmetology school, I was a lot like the students who were coming to see me in that I did not know what a for-profit college was. We still find that most students do not know what a for-profit college is.

I did, however, have feelings about how the school operated, what some of the messages were that we were getting from the management and the executive director of the school that made me second guess whether or not we were counseling prospective students to make the best educational choice for them, even if that educational choice meant not attending our school. What I ended up deciding was that we weren't counseling, but this counseling suggests that we will help you make the best choice even if we don't benefit from your choice, that instead we were selling people.

And when you sell someone, your job isn't to give them more choices, but to give them fewer choices. And because of that, I started to question, well, why do we operate that way? And I wouldn't figure out until much later when I was a sociologist why that might be.

GROSS: So what were some of the techniques you were shown about how to use your word sell people on the idea of enrolling in this college and paying a lot of money to do it?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: The process starts with the first phone call, so when you see those ads that say, you know, call 1-800 such and such to change your life today. When you call that number, someone like me would answer on the other line. And the first thing we would do was to try to get as much of your contact information and your demographic information as possible because we needed to know how to find you. Once I'd gotten that information, my next goal was to get you to visit the school as quickly as possible and I mean in the next 24 to 48 hours to get you to physically come into the school.

And there were a couple of reasons why we wanted that to happen. The first reason was sitting across from a prospective student gave us a lot more information about what they valued so that we could then tailor their tour and their experience of the school to fit that, right? That was harder to do over the phone. It was much easier to do in person.

So once you got them through the door, you thought you'd gotten through over half of your battle of getting them to sign up. And it was also the case that to sign up for school, they had to physically sign what we called an enrollment agreement. And so having them physically there removed all of the barriers to them not signing up. Once the student visited, we took a tour of the campus. We gave them no more than usually two or three options to start school. So unlike a traditional college where we hand you that great, big catalog - although I guess now it's all online, they're not the physical catalog any more - but, you know, one of these things that has 50 different options. It's sort of like a choose your own adventure book.

At the for-profit college, you didn't get to choose your own adventure, right? We gave you two options, and it was either A or B. You were either going to do the degree in criminal justice or the one in business. And once that decision had been made, all of your other decisions were made for you - your next start date, we ordered all of your books, we handled all of your financial aid paperwork for you, we ordered your high school transcripts for you.

The process from the first point of contacting someone like me at the technical school to the first time that you could show up for the first day of class was on average about two weeks. It's a pretty rapid process, and part of making that process rapid was to have someone like me holding your hand throughout.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tressie McMillan Cottom, and her new book is called "Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise Of For-Profit Colleges In The New Economy." We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Tressie McMillan Cottom. Her new book "Lower Ed" is about the new kind of for-profit colleges. She worked as an enrollment officer at two such colleges and then went to grad school and did her doctoral dissertation on the growth of the for-profit college sector, which she now says exploits racial, gender and economic inequality.

What were your concerns about whether a student could afford the tuition or not?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Sitting with prospective students when they sat in their first financial aid meeting when the financial aid person would lay out all of their financial options were some of the first times I started to think really critically about what the process was at the technical school. So one example is that students would often have a balance left over. So even after they'd borrowed the maximum amount that they could borrow from federal student aid and they'd gotten any grants that they may have qualified for, some students would have a balance left over.

And it's when they had that balance, they had some unmet need that some of those differences or some of the problems really started to emerge for me. Because the options that the technical school mostly gave them were options that were just going to make them much more likely to take on debt that they couldn't afford.

So the first option we would usually offer was a payment plan - right? - a monthly payment plan to pay off the balance. Well, if that payment plan and the balance gave you something like a three to $400 a month payment while you were in school - and you were already probably attending the school because you didn't have a lot of income - well, that was not feasible for most of the students at the technical school.

So the next option we would offer is do you know anyone in your family who could cosign on either a parental loan or a private student loan? And well, those are a problem because they don't offer any of the protections that have made the student loans that students get easier to manage, right? So low-interest loans with very forgiving repayment terms - you don't have that in the private student loan market.

When I saw relatively poor and low-income students deciding to take on both student loan debt and private student loan debt and inviting in their family members to cosign on additional loans - so sort of spreading their risk around into their social networks so that they could afford this education - I really started to ask whether they could ever afford it at all. Should they have been there if they had to go through all of those steps to afford the tuition?

GROSS: But at the moment, everybody might've felt really good about it. I don't necessarily mean you, but I mean the student, the person cosigning for the loan because we believe in education. I mean, education - it's your ticket to social mobility, to professional advancement, to income. I mean, you know, we believe in the value of education, as we should.

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes, we do. You know, in the book I call this the education gospel - borrowing from other people who have used this term. And it's this idea that, yes, education is foundational to the narrative of social mobility in this country. And probably nothing is more American than the idea that through hard work - right? - everybody can separate themselves from the circumstances of their birth. Through achievement and hard work, we can all get ahead.

And if the way we are telling people in the new economy that the single way you can get ahead is by getting all the education you can, well, people are listening to that. People actually believe in that, you know, even poor people who have very little reason to believe in it because they've gone to relatively poor K through 12 schools and had negative experiences. Over and over again, I heard people espousing their faith in education. And that is a good thing. We want people to believe in the development of themselves. We want them to believe in self-actualization. These things are really important human values.

The problem is when our education gospel doesn't make a distinction between good education and risky education. And here, in that gap, is where for-profit colleges flourish. They flourish in the gap between what our education gospel says we should do and what our language says there's no such thing as. If we say there's no such thing as bad school, it makes a job like the one I once had at the technical school much easier to do. It is easy to sell people when they don't have any language to understand the idea that school could actually leave them worse off than when they started.

GROSS: So after working at two for-profit colleges as an enrollment officer, you went back to college and then to graduate school. As an undergraduate, your college was a historically black college. Your parents went to a historically black college. So having written extensively now about - and investigated for-profit colleges, have they made you think any differently about the importance of historically black colleges and universities?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Absolutely. And fundamentally this is what I've come to believe, that while for-profit colleges can maybe promise African-American students the opportunity to transform their individual lives - and as we've already talked about, that's a very complicated promise by the way, not one that they do a great job of delivering upon.

But even if it were the case that that was true for the typical African-American enrolled in a for-profit college, the question for me is whether or not for-profit colleges stood ready to develop that capacity for African-American communities in the way that historically black colleges have done. And by that metric, they cannot. Today, for-profit colleges are the No. 1 producer of African-Americans with bachelor's degrees.

And even if it were the case that for every African-American student enrolled in a for-profit college that they would have better life chances, more economic mobility, greater economic rewards for attending a for-profit college, it would still be true that for-profit colleges do not offer the investment in African-American communities that historically black colleges do.

GROSS: How do you think going to a historically black college helped you as a person?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Wow. It's almost difficult to say in so many ways. Attending a historically black college gave me sort of a, you know, a place from which to launch. And I think if higher education really does what we're supposed to do really well, that's the opportunity that we're supposed to be offering everyone who kind of comes through our doors. And they have done this historically with far fewer resources than even the most cash-strapped public institutions of higher education.

They have actually done what I say for-profit colleges do not do a good job of. They have systematically, for years, remediated all of the inequalities that African-American students tend to face from unequal K-12 schools. Historically black colleges do a pretty good job of remediating that and tend to do it at less individual costs and less individual and family student debt than for-profit colleges do. So for me, that was transformative. It meant that I could ask these really important questions and explore higher education and learning without condemning me and my parents to a lifetime of debt peonage (laughter), and that mattered.

It also mattered because when I became one of those students who did withdraw and drop out for a while, when it was time for me to go back, when I called at my historically black college, a person in admissions answered. And they helped walk me through the process of coming back. And I think we've done a pretty good job of that and, I think, refute the idea that the only institutions who can do that have to operate for profit.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tressie McMillan Cottom. And her new book, "Lower Ed," is about the new kind of for-profit colleges. She worked as an enrollment officer at two such colleges. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Tressie McMillan Cottom. Her new book, "Lower Ed," is about the new kind of for-profit colleges. She worked as an enrollment officer at two such colleges and then went to grad school and did her doctoral dissertation on the growth of the for-profit college sector, which she says exploits racial, gender and economic inequality.

So I was reading some of your essays because you've written - you know, you write for The Atlantic. You've written for Slate and other places. And you have this personal essay that you wrote, probably a couple of years ago, about a Miley Cyrus performance.

MCMILLAN COTTOM: (Laughter) Yes.

GROSS: OK. And in that, you write about being the only African-American couple at happy hour...

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes.

GROSS: ...One day at this, you know, bar-restaurant. And you write, (reading) I saw a few white couples imbibing and beginning some version of bodily grooving to the DJ. I told my partner that one of them would be offering me free liquor and trying to feel my breasts within the hour (laughter). And of course...

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yep.

GROSS: ...You write that your partner thinks you're crazy. But sure enough, that's exactly what happens.

What is going on?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: (Laughter) That's a great question - what is going on? No. So the story was about this thing that happens to me a lot, which is - when you're black in a majority-white space that is a social space, so not work - right? - but that is a social space, we have so much, sort of, self-segregation by race still in this country - most people are friends with people who are the same racial group as they are, especially white Americans - that the social space has become like a microcosm for, like, all of our racial angst - right? - in the country.

And I say to my partner that night because he was from a different part of the country. And this was - we were in the South. We were in North Carolina. I said, now look, they're drinking. And they're about to become very familiar. And the only way they're going to know how to deal with me as an African-American woman who they perceive as being so different from themselves - but here we are sharing this social space and their defenses are lowered because they're drinking - the only way they're going to know how to do that is to sexualize me in this really weird way.

So I get lots of really bizarre, unsolicited overtures from white people in those social spaces, especially where alcohol is involved, that almost always revolves around them wanting to touch me physically. It happened so much that it's a joke among my friends. You know, at what time tonight - we usually call an hour - by what time tonight will Tressie be felt up by a stranger...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCMILLAN COTTOM: ...In the women's restroom? (Laughter) We have this constant pool going on.

And in the essay, the point I'm making is that it's really easy for us to assume that that's just about being a woman - that that's about sort of our sexual culture. And it's very easy for us to say that's about my individual experience. The challenge for me was to try to unpack - what about that was about me, and what does that say about how we interact socially across racial divides? Why are we so uncomfortable until we are comfortable enough to be too comfortable with one another?

Why did strangers feel like they had permission to invade my personal space that way - to actually sort of take away my bodily autonomy, often against my will? They're often touching me before any words are said, both men and women, I should point out. So this wasn't just men. In fact, it's often the women who are initiating it. Why did that happen? I wrote that essay, and I got - I think to this day, I get more mail and email from responses from people about that essay than anything I have ever written.

GROSS: What kind of responses do you get? Are people - is it from people who find themselves in the same position you've been in?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Oh, yeah, from black women overwhelmingly saying, oh, yeah, been there. Right? Like, yeah. I have to decide even when I'm going out for drinks after work with work colleagues - right? - about how long we're going to stay and what that's going to look like. Plenty of black women saw their experiences reflected in that piece, lots of defensiveness which that part we might expect from lots of non-black readers who had a million explanations for why that might be the case that was not the explanation that I had given.

But also some really reflective pieces from people saying, you know, I've kind of caught myself in this moment doing this to a stranger the other night, and I had to ask myself why I thought I had the right to do that. And I think when these essays - I'm not a huge fan of doing a lot of personal essays - but I think when they do work, they work when they do that, right?

When a person goes I was sitting somewhere. I have never met you - right? - and I was initially emotionally resistant to everything you had said. But I found myself in the real world the other day having an experience where I thought of that thing you wrote, and it made me reflect on myself differently. When that happens, it's worth the 20,000, you know, emails I get from people who are really angry but - trust me - but lots of people were really angry.

GROSS: Well, you know, I hesitate to bring this up because it's also loaded. You write about body types in this essay.

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes.

GROSS: So how do you think, like, your body type figured into these, like, strange overtures that you were getting from people...

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Terry, you're going to make everybody Google me.

GROSS: ...Like buying you drinks and touching you...

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Right?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I'll spell your name.

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah. There are going to be thousands of people now Googling what does she look like? OK so, you know, at risk of violating, like, being modest, I am, I think, robustly built is a way to say that. I'm not exactly sure. But, yes, there is something to that if her - if she didn't want to be sexualized, she wouldn't look that way - right? - which is certainly, again, part of - that's just as much about gender as it is about anything else - a gender dynamic.

We tend to ascribe personality characteristics of people based on their physical appearances and when it comes to women because we're uncomfortable with women being sexual beings. We have an excess of negative assumptions about women based on how they are built or how they look.

But, yes, I think it would've been very different if I were smaller or thinner or certainly if I read as being closer to white phenotypically, like if I was lighter skinned, etc. I think all of that would be different. But I think there's something particular about - I call it being Oprah-fied.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCMILLAN COTTOM: You know, there's something about wanting to be familiar and comfortable with a black woman's body in a way when that body looks more like Oprah than it looks like, say, Halle Berry because we only have a couple of ways to understand that.

I can either relate to Oprah as being like a mother figure, you know, doing the sort of motherly thing, but when we try to put her in the realm of being like a mature, adult sexual being, we get really uncomfortable. And so I think we go to the extreme and over-sexualize, and I suspect that maybe that's what's happening to me - getting a little Oprah-fied.

GROSS: Well, Tressie Mcmillan Cottom, thank you so much for talking with us.

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Thank you so much for having me, Terry. This has really been wonderful. Thank you.

GROSS: Tressie McMillan Cottom is the author of the new book "Lower Ed." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Sharon Weinberger, author of a new book about DARPA, the Pentagon agency founded in 1958 that's focused on creating new defense technologies. Innovations that have come out of DARPA include the internet, communications, satellites, drones, the driverless car and the robot vacuum cleaner. But it's also spent billions on projects like missile shields that didn't work out. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.