Since Tressie McMillan Cottom's new book Lower Ed, which tackles the predatory enrollment practices of for-profit colleges, was released on February 28, to say her life has been a whirlwind would be an understatement.
Cottom has been traveling around the country to tour the book on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays while continuing to teach sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The tour has been a mix of academic presentations and bookstore readings, and even included a stop in New York City to make an appearance on The Daily Show.
On weekends, she sleeps.
Her tour ends at Park Road Books in her hometown of Charlotte tonight, and when I ask her what she plans to do next, she laughs and tells me it's the worst question I could ask her at this point.
"What's next for me is I'm going to lay down," she says.
Before doing that, though, the West Charlotte High School grad has humbly agreed to take some of that precious weekend time to sit down with me and chat about the unexpected popularity of Lower Ed, how Charlotte became a hub for for-profit colleges and why meeting Trevor Noah convinced Cottom he's destined for greatness beyond Comedy Central.
Creative Loafing: Were you born and raised in Charlotte?
Tressie Cottom: Not born here, but raised here. I moved here when I was about 9 or 10. I remember being very upset about it. I was very pissed at my mom about it, because I thought I had just gotten a really good teacher where we were [in Winston-Salem] and I was going to have to come here and start at a new place. But it worked out.
So it's grown on you?
This is clearly home. It's weird, it's one of those things where you don't think about it at the time, but something about going away and coming back, I've got a memory of every place in this city. You can't recreate that somewhere else. I was driving down Independence [Boulevard] today like, "Oh, this is where I got my driver's license. Where I almost failed my test because they took me on Independence Boulevard and I freaked out."
You used to be an enrollment representative at a for-profit college in Charlotte, which is how you became aware of some of the more unsavory enrollment practices. Since you've left, ITT Tech has closed a Charlotte campus amidst widespread abuse and fraud allegations. Charlotte School of Law is on the ropes. What makes Charlotte such a hub for this type of activity?
It's got all the perfect ingredients. The demographics are just right. You've got plenty of working-class white people, a healthy African-American community — which is sort of their number one constituency — and a growing non-white population, whether that be Hispanic, Asian American, etc. Those are the perfect demographics for for-profits, because it's basically anybody who doesn't have an intergenerational relationship with college. So it's perfect. We're this fast-growing city where all this money is suddenly being made, and you also have people who maybe don't have some deep allegiance to going to like, UNC.
So you've got this pent-up demand, and because of our involvement in the banking industry, that also makes us vulnerable to this kind of thing. Because basically, when banking is in trouble, the labor market in Charlotte is in trouble. We saw this with the recession. You're going to have significant groups of people all of a sudden either losing jobs or suddenly becoming economically insecure when the banks get into trouble. Those are the perfect conditions for for-profit schools.
There's a man named Jason you talk about in your book, whom you enrolled into college, and his case inspired you to quit your job. Was it a sudden thing or had you already been having those thoughts?
It was probably cumulative, but Jason's case was the one where I remember having the most clarity about it, for lots of reasons. He was the reason why I asked myself lots of questions, but it wasn't just him, it was cumulative. Jason's was just the most clear-cut case, like I couldn't justify it. Other people, I had been able to find some justification for. There was no good justification for Jason enrolling there. By every measure, this was not going to be a good outcome for him and that was just so clear to me.
Have you had any pushback from the for-profit college industry about this book?
Well, I was not a secret to them. I have been around, agitating and doing this sort of work for a bit. I had this really big conference in Duke a few years ago, many of them showed up for the conference. It was a research conference to bring people together and think about what for-profit colleges are. So they showed up, I let them attend, it was cool.
But I think many of them were caught off guard by how well the book was done. They were alright with it happening because they're like, "Yeah, yeah, we know her, whatever." But then you're in the New York Times, then you're on NPR, then they started caring. So they'd write letters to NPR after they interviewed me, wanting to say it's unfair that their side isn't being told. But more directly with me, they have mostly just tried the charm offensive, so I get emails saying, "I think if you would just come and sit down and talk with us you would understand."
What has been your reaction to those?
Right now I don't respond to them, which to be fair, I really just don't have time. Second, I kind of already know what they're about.
Right, and you've already been behind the scenes.
And that's why they're really scared. If I was just an academic – they're line of argument for the longest time has been that academics are elitists, and they just are condescending and looking down — what's really caught them off guard is that they can't say that about me. They haven't figured out what their approach to me is, actually. I think that's throwing them off.
I haven't taken any of them up on their offers. I may at some point if there's anything in it for me, which would be, can I talk to students? That's all I ever care about, and the one thing, by the way, that they never want you to do. They'll sit down and they'll let you talk to administrators, will let you sometimes talk to faculty, but they do not want you talking to students.
As you mentioned, it's gotten a ton of attention nationwide. Is that something you saw coming?
No. Academic books on average I think sell something like 50 copies. I wanted to sell 51. I basically wanted to beat the mean, man. I wanted to sell more books than average, because then I could always say, "I sold more books than average." [laughs] And I was fine with that. No, I had no idea. We're in the third reprint, so definitely north of 50.
You made it on The Daily Show, tell me what that experience was like.
So Trevor [Noah] sends me a DM [Twitter direct message] one day, the only person to slide up in my DMs for something positive — ever in the history of mankind. He's like, "You should come on the show." I'm like, "Yeah, whatever, I don't know how this works, but I'll try it out." Well how it works is, after you get the call, this system pops up where they contact your publisher and you just have to show up. My job was just to be in New York that day. I get there that morning, they send for you, you come in, and they're very well prepared for you.
He's read the book. The producers have read the book, which I'm learning is actually very rare. We meet backstage beforehand so we can kind of get to know each other. He's very charming, and I was actually struck by how serious he was. And I mean deeply serious. I kept asking him, "What the hell am I doing here?" And he kept going, "Why do you keep asking me that?" He said, "I've been reading you for a while, but I'm very interested in these questions you're asking," and he legitimately was. My suspicion is he's got a very particular future in mind for himself, and I think it's much more serious than being a comedian. That's my read.
What's the main thing you want to come out of this book?
I struggled from the outset of proposing this book and everything in defining my audience. So when you propose a book, they always ask you, "Who's your audience? Who's your competition? Blah, blah, blah." I never really had one, because I had so many audiences in mind. But now having it been out for a while, the more I talk about it, the more I think about it, I think the real problem was that my goal was really too big, which was I truly want to change the entire conversation about how we talk about education.
I just think that in the 21st century, the way we talk about education creates more problems than it does solutions. So part of the problem of why we even have for-profit colleges is that we're not willing to admit that there is such a thing as bad education.
The idea that as long as someone is learning something it must be for a greater good?
That's it. And if I do nothing else, I want to make it harder for people to say that bullshit. I don't want another tech giant from Silicon Valley, another politician, another community disruptor innovator type person with the newest charter school or whatever it is, to be able to say that anymore without a bunch of people pushing back and going, "Well you know what? I heard this thing, and actually, maybe we should ask some more questions about that." If that is all that happens I would think it's huge.
What can people expect at Park Road Books on Monday?
I have two different ways I've been doing the book tour, and that's because the book is kind of two different things. On one level, it was an academic thing, because it's my dissertation research and all that stuff. So when I go to a university, or a think tank, something like that, I give a more academic talk.
But one of the things that's been really enjoyable for me, in my heart I'm a writer. That's what I did. I was that nerd in school. I learned to write at West Charlotte. For me, doing the bookstore stuff is where I get to be more of a writer. So it's very different from my academic talks. I read from the book, but give a lot of the backstory. I've been told it's a little performative. I'm like Sophia in the Golden Girls, "Picture it. Italy. 1922." I do that kind of thing, and it's just more enjoyable for me. I like to talk about the stories that made it resonate for me. I try to leave lots of room for question-and-answer because usually at my talks people come with tons of questions. So I have learned to try to get to Q&A as quickly as possible.
And I always reach out to students. I can never guarantee it's going to happen, but for example, I was coming to Charlotte and I knew what was happening with Charlotte School of Law and ITT Tech here at home, and I reached out to lots of people, and I'm hoping some students come out. In the event that they do, I like to leave enough room for us to maybe talk to them and address some of their questions and concerns.
It's always a little more laid back at the bookstores. It's just definitely not an academic talk; no slideshow, no crap like that.