Tressie McMillan Cottom

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Tressie McMillan Cottom
Tressie McMillan Cottom PhD THICK (cropped).jpg
Academic background
EducationNorth Carolina Central University
Alma materEmory University
ThesisBecoming Real Colleges in the Financialized Era of U.S. Higher Education: The Expansion and Legitimation of For-Profit Colleges (2015)
Academic work
Main interestsAmerican higher education, race, inequality, work, technology
Notable worksLower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, Thick: And Other Essays

Tressie McMillan Cottom is an American writer, sociologist, and professor. She is currently an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science (SILS), and is also an affiliate of the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life (CITAP) at UNC-Chapel Hill.[1] She was formerly an associate professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and a faculty associate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. McMillan Cottom is the author of Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy and Thick: And Other Essays, a co-editor of For-Profit Universities and Digital Sociologies, an essayist whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, and co-host of the podcast Hear to Slay with author Roxane Gay. She is frequently quoted in print and television media as an academic expert in inequality and American higher education. In 2020, McMillan Cottom was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in recognition of her work "at the confluence of race, gender, education, and digital technology."[2]

Early life and education[edit]

photo of the entrance of North Carolina Central University
North Carolina Central University, where McMillan Cottom earned her BA

McMillan Cottom was born in Harlem and raised in Winston-Salem and Charlotte, North Carolina.[3][4] Her mother was a member of the Black Panther Party in Winston-Salem.[5] Before completing her undergraduate degree McMillan Cottom worked as an enrollment officer at a technical college, a job that would inform her later research and her first book.[6] McMillan Cottom received her B.A. from North Carolina Central University, a public HBCU, in English and political science.[7] While pursuing her Ph.D. at Emory University McMillan Cottom worked as a visiting fellow at the University of California, Davis Center for Poverty Research and as a Microsoft Research Social Media Collective intern.[8][9] She also wrote the biweekly "Counter Narrative" column for Slate magazine.[10] She earned her PhD in sociology from Emory University in 2015 with a dissertation on the legitimacy of for-profit higher education institutions.[11]


In 2015 McMillan Cottom was appointed as an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.[12][13] She was awarded tenure and promoted to the rank of associate professor in 2019. In 2020, she left Virginia Commonwealth University to join the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.[1]

Public intellectual[edit]

Before the publication of her book Lower Ed McMillan Cottom was known primarily as an essayist and academic expert on issues of inequality, higher education, and race.[14] She writes from the analytical perspective of intersectionality.[15] Her essays have advocated for reparations to African Americans,[16] identified racism rather than political correctness as the real threat to university campus life,[17] and suggested that black girls are treated as more adult than white girls.[18] She is a contributing editor at Dissent and one of HuffPost's commissioned opinion columnists.[19] In addition to her own writing, McMillan Cottom has been featured in The New York Times,[20] National Public Radio (NPR),[21] Harvard Educational Review,[22] Mother Jones,[23] Inside Higher Ed,[24] and The Daily Show.[25] Drawing on her experience dealing with controversy as a public intellectual, McMillan Cottom wrote a guide for academics who come under public attack from organized digital campaigns.[26][27] In 2019, McMillan Cottom and Roxane Gay launched a podcast called Hear to Slay to "amplify the voices and work of black women".[28] McMillan Cottom received the Public Understanding of Sociology Award from the American Sociological Association in 2020.[29]

Lower Ed[edit]

McMillan Cottom's 2017 book Lower Ed is an analysis of the for-profit educational sector from the perspective of students trying to navigate a "risky and highly variable" economy.[20] Lower Ed is based on interviews with students and college executives, analysis of for-profit college promotional materials, and McMillan Cottom's own experience working as an enrollment officer at two for-profit institutions. The main finding is that rising emphasis on credentialism in the American job market pushes students to make riskier but individually rational trade-offs in order to obtain educational credentials.[30]

According to McMillan Cottom, for-profit institutions are generally more expensive than non-profit institutions and aggressively market to low-income and working poor students who qualify for the most financial aid, but students are making considered choices about their futures and are not simply being duped by marketing.[31] Lower Ed suggests that policies intended to constrain the marketing behavior of for-profit institutions will not address the underlying political economy issue, and may increase inequalities, especially gender inequalities, in the distribution of valued educational credentials and jobs.[24][32] Harvard Educational Review described Lower Ed as "theoretically provocative, empirically rich, and enjoyable to read".[22]


McMillan Cottom's book Thick: And Other Essays was published by The New Press in 2019. John Warner, writing for the Chicago Tribune, described Thick as "the story of Cottom's life" but also "a kind of manifesto".[33] The book draws on examples from McMillan Cottom's own life, including sexual abuse, divorce, and the death of a child, to discuss broader issues in race, beauty, and education, such as why black women can never be seen as beautiful, why universities prefer African students to African American students, and how assumptions about wealth, competence, and pain undermine black women's efforts to achieve health and financial security.[34]

Publishers Weekly gave Thick a starred review, concluding that "the collection showcases Cottom's wisdom and originality".[3] Rebecca Stoner, writing for Pacific Standard, praised the broad appeal of Thick, noting that McMillan Cottom "makes it possible for her readers, whether or not they are black women, to understand the interdependent nature of our oppressions".[35] The New York Times praised "the author’s skillful interweaving of the academic with the popular" and concluded that Thick "is sure to become a classic of black intellectualism".[36] Thick was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction.[37]




  • (Co-editor, with William A. Darity Jr.) For-Profit Universities: The Shifting Landscape of Marketized Higher Education (2016, Palgrave MacMillan, ISBN 9783319471860)
  • (Co-editor, with Jesse Daniels and Karen Gregory) Digital Sociologies (2016, Policy Press, ISBN 9781447329015)
  • Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy (2017, The New Press, ISBN 9781620970607)
  • Thick: And Other Essays (2019, The New Press, ISBN 978-1620974360)

Selected essays[edit]

  • "No, college isn't the answer. Reparations are." Washington Post, April 29, 2014[16]
  • "The Coded Language of For-Profit Colleges." The Atlantic, February 22, 2017[41]
  • "How We Make Black Girls Grow Up Too Fast." The New York Times, June 29, 2017[18]
  • "The Real Threat to Campuses Isn't 'PC Culture.' It's Racism." Huffington Post, February 19, 2018[17]


  1. ^ a b "Author, professor, and sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom joining SILS and CITAP |". Retrieved June 4, 2020.
  2. ^ "Tressie McMillan Cottom - MacArthur Foundation". Retrieved October 6, 2020.
  3. ^ a b "Thick: And Other Essays". Publishers Weekly. November 26, 2018. Retrieved November 25, 2018.
  4. ^ Pitkin, Ryan (May 15, 2017). "Tressie McMillan Cottom Ends Book Tour Back Home in Charlotte Tonight". Creative Loafing Charlotte. Retrieved August 22, 2018.
  5. ^ Murphy, Carla (September 15, 2014). "'My Feminism Starts 300 Years Ago' | Colorlines". Colorlines. Retrieved August 22, 2018.
  6. ^ Kapsidelis, Karin (March 12, 2017). "Profit motive turns higher ed to 'Lower Ed,' VCU professor says". Richmond Times-Dispatch. Retrieved August 22, 2018.
  7. ^ Bell, Kia C. (March 28, 2017). "Alumna Authors Book About Higher Education". NCCU News. North Carolina Central University. Retrieved August 22, 2018.
  8. ^ "Tressie McMillan Cottom - UC Davis Center for Poverty Research". UC Davis Center for Poverty Research. Retrieved July 23, 2018.
  9. ^ Crawford, Kate (March 13, 2014). "Welcoming the SMC Interns for 2014". Microsoft Research. Retrieved August 22, 2018.
  10. ^ "Counter Narrative". Slate. Retrieved August 22, 2018.
  11. ^ "Commencement 2015: Dissertations showcase original scholarship". Emory News Center. Emory University. May 8, 2015. Retrieved August 22, 2018.
  12. ^ "Sociology Welcomes New Faculty Member–Tressie McMillan Cottom". VCU Sociology News. Virginia Commonwealth University. January 13, 2015. Retrieved August 22, 2018.
  13. ^ "Tressie McMillan Cottom: Ethics and Governance of AI". Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. Retrieved August 22, 2018.
  14. ^ Examples of coverage:
  15. ^ Korn, Jenny (June 20, 2017). "Writing A Book In And Of Real Life: An interview with Tressie McMillan Cottom". HASTAC. Retrieved August 22, 2018.
  16. ^ a b McMillan Cottom, Tressie (May 29, 2014). "No, college isn't the answer. Reparations are". Washington Post. Retrieved August 22, 2018.
  17. ^ a b Cottom, Tressie McMillan (February 19, 2018). "The Real Threat To Campuses Isn't 'PC Culture.' It's Racism". Huffington Post. Retrieved July 23, 2018.
  18. ^ a b McMillan Cottom, Tressie (July 29, 2017). "How We Make Black Girls Grow Up Too Fast". The New York Times. Retrieved August 22, 2018.
  19. ^ Polgreen, Lydia (January 18, 2018). "Introducing HuffPost Opinion And HuffPost Personal". HuffPost. Retrieved August 22, 2018.; "Masthead". Dissent. Retrieved August 21, 2018.
  20. ^ a b Goldstein, Dana (March 7, 2017). "The Troubling Appeal of Education at For-Profit Schools". The New York Times. Retrieved August 21, 2018.
  21. ^ Kamenetz, Anya (February 28, 2017). "To This Scholar, For-Profit Colleges Are 'Lower Ed'". National Public Radio. Retrieved July 23, 2018.
  22. ^ a b Foley, Nadirah Farah (2017). "Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy". Harvard Educational Review. 87 (4).
  23. ^ Rios, Edwin (February 28, 2017). "This woman knows how bad for-profit colleges are. She used to sell them". Mother Jones. Retrieved August 22, 2018.
  24. ^ a b Reed, Matt (February 19, 2017). "Lower Ed: A Review". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved August 21, 2018.
  25. ^ "Tressie McMillan Cottom - Investigating For-Profit Colleges in "Lower Ed" - Extended Interview - The Daily Show with Trevor Noah". Comedy Central. Retrieved July 23, 2018.
  26. ^ Rees, Jonathan (November 8, 2017). "The Wrong Kind of Famous". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved August 22, 2018.
  27. ^ Quintana, Chris (July 18, 2017). "'If There's an Organized Outrage Machine, We Need an Organized Response'". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved August 22, 2018.
  28. ^ Willis, Samantha (July 1, 2019). "Thinking While Black". Richmond Magazine. Retrieved September 19, 2019.
  29. ^ a b "2020 ASA Award recipients". American Sociological Association. Archived from the original on January 16, 2020. Retrieved January 15, 2020.
  30. ^ Skallerup Bessette, Lee (March 20, 2017). "Lower Ed: A (Brief) Review". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
  31. ^ "How For-Profit Colleges Sell 'Risky Education' To The Most Vulnerable". Fresh Air. National Public Radio. March 17, 2017. Retrieved August 21, 2018.
  32. ^ Seamster, Louise (April 3, 2018). "All Credentials aren't Created Equal". Contexts. 17 (1): 74–75. doi:10.1177/1536504218766541.
  33. ^ Warner, John (December 27, 2018). "The author you need to read now: Tressie McMillan Cottom". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved January 8, 2019.
  34. ^ "Thick: And Other Essays". Kirkus Reviews. November 13, 2018. Retrieved January 8, 2019.
  35. ^ Stoner, Rebecca (January 18, 2019). "Tressie McMillan Cottom Seeks to Write 'Powerful Stories That Become a Problem for Power'". Pacific Standard. Retrieved January 18, 2019.
  36. ^ Acker, Camille (February 12, 2019). "Five Essay Collections by Women of Color". The New York Times. Retrieved February 12, 2019.
  37. ^ Alter, Alexandra (October 8, 2019). "National Book Awards Names 2019 Finalists". The New York Times. Retrieved October 8, 2019.
  38. ^ "Awards". Sociologists for Women in Society. November 8, 2017. Retrieved July 23, 2018.
  39. ^ McNeill, Brian (April 29, 2019). "Cottom to receive prestigious early career award from American Sociological Association". Virginia Commonwealth University News. Retrieved June 8, 2019.
  40. ^ Jacobs, Julia (October 6, 2020). "MacArthur 'Genius' Grant Winners for 2020: The Full List". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved October 6, 2020.
  41. ^ Cottom, Tressie McMillan (February 22, 2017). "For-Profit Colleges Thrive Off of Inequality". The Atlantic. Retrieved July 23, 2018.

External links[edit]