I had been wanting to read Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed since I first heard about it, way back whenever, So it was fortuitous that it was selected for the Bryan Alexander Book Club. The reason I wanted to read it, aside from being a fan of her writing, was that I used to work for a for-profit college. I was an adjunct, like most of the instructors, teaching a course called Information Literacy and Research Skills. This was a required course, mainly because state regulations mandated a certain number of liberal arts credits for AAS degrees. The college used these courses to build some basic skills, so the course History of Information Technology, also required, fell under Liberal Arts even though it was mainly a keyboarding class. Maybe that seems shady, but it was necessary for many students. The college was basically a career-training school. They pushed writing in all the courses because people would need written communication skills if they were going to find jobs, and many students came from backgrounds where they didn’t need to write much more than text messages.
I met McMillan Cottom briefly at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute and told her where I had worked. She said, “They’re one of the good ones.” I felt the same way. Everyone I worked with was trying to do the right thing for the students. There was pushback from headquarters when the enrollment officers tried too hard to bring in people who needed too much more help than the school could provide. The sector has a bad rep, but I think the responsibility for that lies with the large, publicly traded companies. As far as I know, my school was privately held, so there wasn’t an investor pressure to maintain constant growth, and the kinds of abuse that goes with that.
The image at the top comes from the back of our employee t-shirts. I was amused by the play on words with the fire safety slogan they taught us in grade school, and never thought about it much beyond that. But something that comes up in Lower Ed is the sense of urgency in the marketing language of for-profit colleges. “Call now! Turn your life around today.” Not only does the language suggest that enrolling is a matter of survival, but the colleges also try to target people who have recently experienced some sort of trauma, people who may feel in need of something life-changing. It will be interesting to see how else her research causes me to re-evaluate my experience.