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Q&A: Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom discusses higher ed, social mobility and racial justice


Renowned author, researcher, educator and cultural critic Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom recently spoke with Kresge Foundation grantee partners and staff to discuss intersections between higher education, social mobility and racial justice. The conversation took place during a digital convening of Kresge Education partners participating in the Advancing Student Transportation Solutions initiative, an effort aimed at addressing a barrier that often impedes student success: transportation. Kresge Education Program Officer Edward Smith led the discussion with McMillan Cottom and explored reflections from her 2017 book “Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy” as well as her outlook on the future of the higher education sector and what we can anticipate from the incoming Biden-Harris administration.

Read below for highlights from the conversation.

Smith: To say the COVID-19 pandemic was a shock to our higher education system would be an understatement. Can you share your observations about the sector alongside a few reflections about how this year compares to past shocks to the system?

McMillan Cottom: I am trying to be both pragmatic and hopeful about what might happen with higher education and work after COVID. We are still in the thick of things, so it’s difficult to make any projections. One thing I think we have learned is how much we rely on projections for this whole apparatus to work. Part of our challenge has been, without the ability to project out a semester in advance, much less, the typical five to seven-year horizon that higher education prefers, we don’t have many mechanisms for decision-making and operating. That is something I think we should revisit in the future.

At the start of this pandemic, I identified a couple of things that I thought were interesting and that I was going to try to track as this thing unfolded. One of them was drawing from the lessons of previous external shocks.

One was the Great Recession. That’s the most recent one that social science researchers like to think about. It was obvious at the beginning that a biological threat, like the pandemic, wasn’t going to just be an economic problem.

Very early on, I was reading literature about how higher education responded to Hurricane Katrina. That seemed to be an analog for what we might experience during and after COVID-19 in higher education. So far, that looks like a couple of things.

The heterogeneity of higher education in the United States during good, stable times is one of its strengths. During times of massive shock, like we are experiencing right now, it isn’t one of our strengths. Then add to that a very conflicted political environment where no one seems to be at the wheel of that all-important triangle of higher education governance. We need that partnership between the federal government, states, and accreditors. That cooperation hasn’t been there during one of the most significant social, political, and economic shocks to modern higher education that we’ve ever seen.

The colleges that have had a clear vision and mission that is compatible with what their students want, and what their community asks of them, have done fairly well during the pandemic.

The institutions that probably won during COVID are for-profit colleges, frankly, because of a shift of attention away from, not just the sector, but a shift in federal policy regarding accountability for the sector. You see that in some of the consolidation happening in that sector.

The schools that continue to struggle because of tensions between state and federal agencies are the schools that we need the most for social mobility. Minority serving institutions, large public institutions, and our community colleges are where we’ve seen a crisis of both the leadership and accountability that I think we’ll need to keep an eye on throughout COVID and after.

Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom
Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom speaks with Kresge grantees and staff during the December 7th Advancing Student Transportation Solutions digital convening.

Smith: You mentioned Hurricane Katrina and studying its effects on some of our social and educational institutions might be a helpful analog here. After Katrina, the New Orleans economy changed. Do you foresee any continued changes in the nature of work and jobs due to the pandemic? Any changes you think higher education leadership should prepare for?

McMillan Cottom: Absolutely. One relates to the people who would be our student base. I’m talking about the institutions [community colleges, public institutions and Minority Serving Institutions] that do the bulk of the social mobility work in our society. For those institutions, the world of work is critical. It is the implied silent partner of that triad that makes higher education work in the United States.

People need to be able to project economic security to make good higher education decisions. And when they cannot do so, they don’t have the right information or good enough information to make those kinds of choices.

One of the things that we’re seeing during COVID is the reversal of a historical trend. An economic downturn has historically led to an increase in college enrollment, especially at the community college level. We’re not seeing that during COVID. I attribute that to the longstanding cumulative economic concerns and crises that have been playing out in the labor market. People simply do not trust that the jobs will be there, and the economic opportunity will be on the other side.

The future of higher education is only as healthy as the opportunities for social mobility. We’re looking at an economy where more workers are piecing together more forms of precarious work in the gig economy. This has really become visible during COVID.

Smith: Throughout “Lower Ed” you make clear that enrollment at many of the for-profit colleges you study are a result of gross social and economic inequalities, not just misguided student choices. Students are not gullible sheep with low cognitive abilities. You buttress this point by talking about the discourse among policymakers and researchers regarding data. You write, “what would more data bring about if there aren’t better choices for students to choose from?” What would you say about this now as a result of COVID disruptions?

McMillan Cottom: As I wrote the book, I was convinced that the lack of investment in social policy impacted a significant part of the student population. They were just sort of written off and their choices had been written off as a foregone conclusion that was somehow rooted in who they were and not rooted in the choices that were made available to them.

We’ve gotten somewhat better in some segments of social policy. There’s been significant movement led by very courageous political leaders on one side and activists on the other who have shifted how we talk about students. That has set the stage for us to have a far more sophisticated public conversation about higher education and higher education choices than we were having 10 years ago.

The organizing around student debt has changed how we talk about higher education policy too. The fact that in 2020, we’re having a very serious conversation about student loan debt forgiveness is almost a direct consequence of very successful student organizing.

I like to think that we have learned we can invest in high quality institutions. Previously, we fell down on that responsibility. We invested in higher education and expanded higher education but did not pay attention to the differences among different types of institutions.

At least now we have the language and political partners that we didn’t have seven or eight years ago who are willing to say that all institutions are not created equally. If they are not good enough for the most resourced student, they’re not good enough for the least resourced student.

Smith: What do you think the incoming Biden-Harris administration means for higher education, and what types of policies would you like to see proposed or implemented in the coming years?

McMillan Cottom: There’s a lot to be said about what we’ll need to do to hold a new administration accountable. But what cannot be overstated is how different this administration speaks about and sees, its role in educational policy. There was a real abdication of responsibility for the federal government’s role under the current administration.

We can expect a couple of things and there are a couple of hopes. I think that there’s a lot of work to be done in making the Department of Education functional again. I know a lot of our career public service folks in these institutions are thrilled to get back up to functioning levels of staffing of investment so they can do the work they’re charged with doing.

I think we can expect to have a conversation about the price of college and affordability. That is going to have to be a two-parter. We’ve got to deal with the current [COVID-related] affordability crisis, but we also have to deal with what’s left over from the affordability crisis that we didn’t address over the last five years.

We’ve got to figure out what to do with student loan debt that ballooned for reasons that are not at all attached to the individual choices students and families made. We created a perverse set of incentives with student loan debt and financialization over the last few years that we’ve got to solve. And I think the incoming administration knows that.

Importantly, I think the incoming administration is open to listening to organizations who have been working on crafting what that kind of policy would look like. I suspect we’ll be having substantive public conversations about things like gainful employment in the for-profit college sector and the Borrower Defense Rule, all those contentious things about holding for-profit colleges accountable.

I hope we’ll be looking more seriously, and we have indications that the Biden-Harris Administration is open to thinking about what free college would look like to a Year 16, for example, or a Year 14. At least making the first two years of college free, maybe with some means testing.

Smith: Your scholarship and voice bring together sectors and leaders who are often in disparate conversations. Do you have any reflections on how higher ed leaders can be in better partnership with, for example, our transit sector or our human services sector to piece together a system that better serves students on their path to success?

McMillan Cottom: I’ve been thinking about higher education leadership. The institutions that end up navigating this pandemic well did the hard work of investing in leaders, which is different from a manager. A leader is accountable to a vision and a mission, and more importantly, has the authority to defend that mission.

Higher education leaders are learning the importance of community partners. When a public health crisis came along, higher education leaders realized we are not just a place with walls. We are beholden to our local community and our local economy. Community colleges, for example, lead the way on this, but some other institutions could shore up relationships with local entities.

We’ve also got to figure out how to wed workforce development policy, processes and systems to education processes and systems. We too often treat them as distinct, maybe loosely coupled. Over the last five to seven years we’ve learned that they are far more tightly coupled than we usually have them structured in the system of higher education.

That means higher education leaders learning about and being more invested in what local and regional workforce development looks like around that college. For many colleges, that’s going to be their value proposition in the coming decade, in a far more tangible way than something like research or grant-getting has been.

Smith: What did the 2020 presidential election tell you about our country?

McMillan Cottom: It told me that the public sphere had not been public for quite some time. When we thought we were having public conversations, whether that was on Facebook or it was on the local news, we were not. I think that’s why national elections have become flash points. They are this moment when everybody retreats from their silos and are forced out for this one moment. Then we try to do public discourse for six months leading up to the election and we find that none of us are talking about the same thing and have no shared vocabulary. When things are roughly going well, maybe that’s fine, or at least it’s operable.

I think we learned the value of public institutions in creating that space for public discourse between elections. We cannot have a public square for six months every four years and be a functioning public square.

There is a vital role for public institutions to teach us how to be a public. We’ve got to come out of our inward-facing positions. We’ve got to come into the public where, yes, we are taking a beating. Public faith and trust in college and higher education, while not off the cliff, has been waning, and that waning is not unilateral.

Even institutions that have strong leaders are not making the case to the public that, ‘these institutions matter to you and here’s why and how.’ I will continue to scream from the rooftops that that vacuum is an important one in how a democracy works. If we don’t fill it, nefarious actors will.

Smith: College leaders, researchers, practitioners, for the reasons we all know, this year have been experiencing a reckoning with racial injustice and have been trying to move their campuses in a way that would help identify a lens through which they can change programming, service to students, and relationship with communities. But philanthropy has also gone through that type of lens-making and sense-making. How can college leaders, and let’s say philanthropic leaders, develop a lens through which to explore racial inequality through their work?

McMillan Cottom: I’m a big fan of setting up incentives. Some of the most powerful work that we can do in these spaces, particularly for our philanthropic partners, is set up strong, positive incentives that allow practitioners, researchers, higher education leaders and educators the cover to do the critical work of developing that lens. Getting an important grant legitimizes certain sets of questions as being important to the field and is some of the most important agenda setting that can shape how higher education sees itself and allocates its resources.

Grantmaking and investments from philanthropic partners make that work possible.

Developing the kind of lens you’re talking about is long work. That doesn’t happen in one cycle or one year. You’ve got to build the pipeline of financial incentives that give people the freedom to do the work. It’s going to be important not just to the functioning of colleges and universities, but for people’s faith in us and our legitimacy to do our work.

If higher education is not an institution for a plural society, as our society becomes more plural, why would the public care about us?

This conversation was edited lightly for length and clarity.

“Lower Ed” was developed with grant support from Kresge to The New Press as part of a series that explores key reform issues in postsecondary education, questions of access and success for under-represented students, and the role of higher education as an engine of social mobility in the 21st century. To learn more about “Lower Ed,” please visit Other books in The New Press series include “The Other College Guide,” “Never Too Late,” “The Merit Myth” and “Won’t Lose This Dream.”