Lower Ed

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

As featured on The Daily Show, NPR’s Marketplace, and Fresh Air, the “powerful, chilling tale” (Carol Anderson, author of White Rage) of higher education becoming an engine of social inequality

“McMillan Cottom has written the best book yet on the complex lives and choices of for-profit students.” —Dana Goldstein for the New York Times Book Review

Published to rave reviews and a flurry of media buzz—including a laudatory tweet from none other than Oprah herself—Lower Ed is quickly becoming the definitive book on an economic and social phenomenon that has shaken the very core of opportunity in America. With sharp insight and deliberate acumen, Tressie McMillan Cottom, an associate professor of sociology who was once a recruiter at two for-profit colleges, expertly parses the fraught dynamics of the big-money industry of for-profit colleges, the fastest-growing sector of higher education at the turn of the twenty-first century.

Drawing on more than one hundred interviews with students, employees, executives, and activists, Lower Ed details the benefits, pitfalls, and real costs of the expansion of for-profit colleges. Featured by Newsweek, The Atlantic, Vibe magazine, Mother Jones, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Slate, Pacific Standard, and several other outlets, this is a smart, essential look at our nation’s broken social contracts and the challenges we face in our divided, unequal society.


“In a sea of simplistic and often bombastic critiques of American higher education, Tressie McMillan Cottom’s trenchant analysis of Lower Ed stands out. As the Trump administration moves to make life ever easier for the nation’s for-profit colleges, this book offers the most powerful form of resistance—detailed storytelling of the causes and consequences of this big-money industry. Anyone frustrated with high college prices, student debt, or the diminishing sense of hope surrounding so many communities needs to read this book.”
—Sara Goldrick-Rab, author of Paying the Price and professor of higher education policy at Temple University
“[A] profound examination of the role of for-profit colleges in the emerging, ‘new’ American economic landscape. This is the best book I’ve read on for-profit (or shareholder) colleges and universities.”
—William A. Darity Jr., professor of economics, public policy, and African American studies at Duke University
Lower Ed is brilliant. It is nuanced, carefully argued, and engagingly written. It is a powerful, chilling tale of what happens when profit-driven privatization of a public good latches on to systemic inequality and individual aspirations.”
—Carol Anderson, author of White Rage and professor of African American studies at Emory University
“With passion, eloquence, and data too, McMillan Cottom charts the harm we are doing to our youth, to higher education, and to democracy itself.”
—Cathy N. Davidson, author of Now You See It and founding director of the Futures Initiative at the City University of New York
“In Lower Ed McMillan Cottom is at her very best—rigorous, incisive, empathetic, and witty. . . . Her sharp intelligence, throughout, makes this book compelling, unforgettable, and deeply necessary.”
—Roxane Gay, author of Difficult Women and Bad Feminist
“This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the market forces currently transforming higher education. It is an eye-opening portrait of this burgeoning educational sector and the ways in which its rapid expansion is linked to skyrocketing inequality and growing labor precarity in the twenty-first-century United States.”
—Ruth Milkman, past president of the American Sociological Association

News and Reviews


An interview with Tressie McMillan Cottom on NPR's blog, "nprEd."


Tressie McMillan Cottom discusses for-profit colleges and Lower Ed in an interview with NPR's "Marketplace."


Author Tressie McMillan Cottom appears for a radio interview on WNYC's "The Leonard Lopate Show."

The New York Times Book Review

The New York Times Book Review reviews Tressie McMillan Cottom's Lower Ed.

Books by Tressie McMillan Cottom

And Other Essays

Tressie McMillan Cottom