Tressie McMillan Cottom: Invest in education equity

By Doug Parry Thursday, April 15, 2021

Noted sociologist, writer and cultural critic Tressie McMillan Cottom made a case for investing in a more equitable approach to higher education at the University of Washington Information School’s Ed Mignon Distinguished Lecture on April 13.

McMillan Cottom, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, told an audience of more than 200 people online that after decades of framing higher education as the key that unlocks career success, “we have a reality problem.” For some, particularly those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, going to college and accumulating student debt has made life harder, she said.

“We promoted an idea that college should be the singular solution to income inequality — wealth inequality — and in doing so, we actually deepened racial, class and gender inequalities,” she said.

In her talk, which centered on the future of higher education, she called for investments in public institutions of higher learning and a political and cultural shift to remove the burden of financial considerations for those considering college.

“I think that every prospective student should be able to make the decision to go to college on the same terms as the wealthiest students get to make that decision,” she said. “Wealthy students know that almost nothing about their life will be worse off if they go to school.”

McMillan Cottom, a 2020 MacArthur Fellow, is known for research and public speaking that examines American education policy. She has had two books published: 2017’s Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy and her 2019 collection Thick: And Other Essays. She and Roxane Gay co-host “Hear to Slay,” a Black feminist podcast that touches on a wide array of topics, including celebrity, culture, politics and art.

In her iSchool talk, McMillan Cottom critiqued a system that, after expanding to offer much greater access after World War II, became seen as more transactional in recent decades. The burden for paying for college has shifted over time, saddling many with student loan debts if they don’t come from privileged backgrounds. Meanwhile, state and federal funding for higher education has dropped over the years, leaving institutions increasingly reliant on tuition revenues.

“How can we make our institutions healthy enough to deserve people’s faith in their ability to transform their lives?” she asked. “Institutions have to be healthy to receive students from all walks of life, all socioeconomic backgrounds, if we are going to make good on the promise that education doesn’t just rubber-stamp the privilege you showed up to college with.”

The Ed Mignon Distinguished Lecture in Information Science is named for an alumnus and former faculty member of what is now the iSchool. He passed away in January 2012. The lectureship is made possible by a gift from Molly Mignon, wife of Ed Mignon. The purpose of the fund is to provide support for an annual lecture by a distinguished speaker on a topic of interest in the field of information science. The  goal is to inspire original thinking and foster creativity among students, faculty and researchers at the Information School.

The recording of the lecture was available through May 1.