Pinkies Up! A Local Tea Movement Is Brewing


Demand for domestic tea is so strong that Minto Island Tea Company continues expanding production. Here, new Camellia sinensis are planted on the Salem, Oregon, farm. It takes three years for tea plants to mature for harvest.

Courtesy of Minto Island Tea Company


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Courtesy of Minto Island Tea Company

Demand for domestic tea is so strong that Minto Island Tea Company continues expanding production. Here, new Camellia sinensis are planted on the Salem, Oregon, farm. It takes three years for tea plants to mature for harvest.

Courtesy of Minto Island Tea Company

On Saturday mornings, the most popular item Minto Island Growers sells at its farmers market booth is not the certified organic carrots, kale or blueberries. It’s tea.

The farm grows Camellia sinensis, tea plants, on a half-acre plot in Salem, Ore. The tender leaves are hand picked and hand processed to make 100 pounds of organic, small batch tea.

The interest is so strong – the loose-leaf black, green and oolong teas sell out within weeks of spring production – that Elizabeth Miller and her husband, Chris Jenkins, planted 12 additional acres of Camellia sinensis in 2016 and plan to plant eight more acres this spring. Their teas are sold under the Minto Island Tea Company brand.

“It’s the energy and enthusiasm from consumers that’s propelling us forward,” says Miller. “People are really excited to have tea that is U.S. grown.”

Most tea production is in countries like China, India and Sri Lanka. In the United States, the Charleston Tea Plantation in South Carolina has been growing tea since 1987 and was the sole commercial tea grower in the nation for a long time.

Now, the U.S. League of Tea Growers reports there are 60 farms in 15 states. Most were started in 2000 or later and several, including The Great Mississippi Tea Company and Virginia First Tea Farm, are less than five years old.

Rie Tulali, spokeswoman for the U.S. League of Tea Growers, refers to a growing interest in domestic tea production as “an exploration into a brand new terroir.”

“While U.S. tea-makers are not as skilled as those in more established tea regions, their teas still have a distinct character found nowhere else in the world, thanks to the unique climates and environments on these U.S. farms,” Tulali says.

A crop of Camellia sinensis thrives at Minto Island Tea Company’s Oregon farm.

Courtesy of Minto Island Tea Company


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Courtesy of Minto Island Tea Company

A crop of Camellia sinensis thrives at Minto Island Tea Company’s Oregon farm.

Courtesy of Minto Island Tea Company

Many up-and-coming tea growers are testing the viability of Camellia sinensis in their regions. The shrub prefers mild climates with significant rainfall and well-drained, acidic soil. It tends to grow well in the South – New Orleans is the same latitude as tea-growing regions in southern China. But that hasn’t stopped growers from experimenting with the crop in places like Michigan and Oregon.

The increase in U.S. tea farms doesn’t mean there is an increase in domestic tea production – yet. It takes at least three years for Camellia sinensis to mature to harvest. The 12 acres of tea that Miller planted in 2016 won’t be processed until at least 2019.

In Pickens, S.C., Steve Lorch is brewing tea from 400 Camellia sinensis bushes he planted in 2009. All of the WinterLeaf Cold Harvest Green tea he’s produced at Table Rock Tea Company sold out in preorders.

“As soon as people heard we were making tea, the orders started coming in; we didn’t even hit the web store with it,” recalls Lorch.

Tea made from Minto Island Tea Company leaves.

Courtesy of Minto Island Tea Company


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Courtesy of Minto Island Tea Company

Tea made from Minto Island Tea Company leaves.

Courtesy of Minto Island Tea Company

Table Rock is ramping up production. Lorch planted 7,000 Camellia sinensis bushes last spring and is in the process of clearing an additional 12 acres to put into production. He is so confident about the retail market for domestic tea, he plans to plant 17,500 additional tea plants per year for the next several years — which translates to about 5,000 pounds of tea.

“We’ve known from the beginning that we’d sell all of the tea we made,” Lorch explains. “There is a strong niche market for U.S. grown tea.”

But the wholesale market, he believes, will be more challenging.

“A Sri Lankan picker gets $3 to $5 per day,” says Lorch. “U.S. grown tea is a lot more expensive. You won’t see 100 bags of domestic tea selling for $2.50. It’s a high-end, artisanal product.”

A bag of freshly harvested Camellia sinensis leaves.

Courtesy of Minto Island Tea Company


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Courtesy of Minto Island Tea Company

Table Rock Tea Company sells a box of 20 teabags for $6.95; five grams of tea — enough for about two cups of tea — sells for $3.95 through Minto Island Tea Company.

“Early on, when production was limited to just a handful of farms producing a few [pounds] of tea a year, the value was in the novelty; the sheer rarity of U.S. grown tea justified the high price,” says Tulali. “However, novelty won’t be enough to sell the tea forever.”

Miller agrees. She is exploring options for mechanizing harvesting and processing (currently, all of the tea is picked and processed by hand) to help lower prices. But she acknowledges that the cost will always reflect the fact that Minto Island Tea Company produces small-batch, artisan teas.

“We’re curious, ourselves, to see how deep the market is for domestic tea,” she says. “So far, people are loving the teas we’re producing and willing to pay premium prices because it’s a special product.”

Tea Tuesdays is an occasional series exploring the science, history, culture and economics of this ancient brewed beverage.

Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina journalist and beekeeper who frequently writes about food and farming.

‘Novel Of The Century’ Is A Lively Companion To ‘Les Misérables’


The Novel of the Century

The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Miserables

by David Bellos

Hardcover, 307 pages |

purchase

The choices you make in the face of desperation, the morality of violent resistance to injustice, the ever-widening chasm of social inequality: Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables is unquestionably relevant today. Hugo himself said “I do not know if it will be read by all, but I wrote it for everyone.” But at around 1500 pages, the book’s sheer size may intimidate some readers — even devoted fans refer to it as “the brick.”

Luckily, Princeton professor David Bellos has provided a handy introduction with The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables. Whether you’re contemplating a run at Les Misérables or returning to it, Bellos’s book is a perfect guide — as well as a compelling story in its own right.

Like a good French Romantic, Victor Hugo made his everyday life as dramatic as possible; a book about him couldn’t be boring if it tried. He wrote most of Les Misérables in exile on the island of Guernsey, within sight of the French coast, where he’d fled into exile days before Napoleon III outlawed him. Bellos happily gives us anecdotes about the year Hugo spent trying to communicate with ghosts through a tapping table (they told him to finish the book), or the open-air baths he took every morning in a tin tub on the roof of his house, where he would wave to his mistress Juliette in her house across the way (she wrote him notes telling him to be careful of catching a cold).

Later on, the story picks up pace and becomes surprisingly suspenseful as Bellos takes us through the months leading up to the novel’s publication, from the debt Hugo’s “carrot-haired” publisher Charles Lacroix had to incur to pay Hugo’s advance and purchase the 22 tons of lead he would need to print the novel on his steam-powered presses, to the extreme measures Hugo and Lacroix took to ensure that no one could pirate the book before publication — manuscripts, proofs and corrections going back and forth on the thrice-weekly steam ferry between Guernsey and Belgium, often delayed by storms and rough seas.

Bellos makes it very clear that Les Misérables might never have seen the light of day if not for a formidable team of women, headed by Hugo’s redoubtable wife Adèle, her sister Julie, and his mistress and confidante Juliette. Juliette undertook the mammoth task of turning Hugo’s manuscript, with all its crossings-out, notes and scribbled corrections, into a fair copy for publication; she worked daily for months until her eyes gave out. Adèle went to Paris on the eve of publication when her banished husband could not, on a publicity tour to raise anticipation to a fever pitch while revealing not a word of the novel’s text. It worked: The 6000 copies printed in Paris sold out in two days.

But this isn’t only the story of the Hugo household; it’s a guide to an extraordinary book that everyone should read. There are chapters on everything from the religion and politics of Les Misérables to the significance of colors in the age before chemical dyes (blue was expensive and thus royalist; green was bourgeois; red and yellow were cheap and low-status). Bellos has struck the ideal balance of top-notch research and readable prose in the chapters that deftly lead us through the world of the novel and its characters.

I first read Les Misérables as a teenager, in Norman Denny’s notoriously inaccurate translation; still, I loved that book and have always returned to it. I can forgive the aspects that haven’t aged well because of the truths it tells. It’s a book that dares you to change the world — and tells you that even if you fail, the world you leave behind will be changed by the choices you made and the life you lived.

I don’t think my experience is unique. Through the years, thousands of people — especially young people — have seen the musical, read the book and fallen in love. As Bellos says, “I think it’s significant that a higher proportion of baristas and office staff than literature professors I’ve met have read Les Misérables from end to end.” Hugo’s novel now has online communities of fans who discuss it with intense enthusiasm, as fans do; Bellos touches on these in a your-dad-writes-about-the-internet moment, the only bum note in the book.

And if you haven’t yet read it? Les Misérables, despite its brick-like appearance, is divided into 365 short chapters that fly by; even if you limit yourself to a chapter a day, you could easily read the entire book in a year. If you do, The Novel of the Century will be an engaging and enlightening companion in a year well spent.

Liza Graham is a mezzo-soprano, writer and Shakespearean text coach. If you are looking for a good translation of Les Misérables, she recommends this one.

How For-Profit Colleges Sell ‘Risky Education’ To The Most Vulnerable


For-profit colleges have faced federal and state investigations into their aggressive recruiting tactics.
For-profit colleges have faced federal and state investigations into their aggressive recruiting tactics.

For-profit colleges have faced federal and state investigations in recent years for their aggressive recruiting tactics — accusations that come as no surprise to author Tressie McMillan Cottom.

Cottom worked as an enrollment officer at two different for-profit colleges, but quit because she felt uncomfortable selling students an education they couldn’t afford. Her new book, Lower Ed, argues that for-profit colleges exploit racial, gender and economic inequality.

Cottom tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross that for-profit institutions tend to focus their recruiting on students who qualify for the maximum amount of student aid. “That happens to be the poorest among us,” she says. “And because of how our society is set up, the poorest among us tend to be women and people of color.”

Tressie McMillan Cottom has a Ph.D. in sociology and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The New Press


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The New Press

Tressie McMillan Cottom has a Ph.D. in sociology and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The New Press

Though for-profit colleges hold out the promise of a better future, Cottom notes that the credentials they offer tend to be 30 to 40 percent more expensive than the same credentials from a nonprofit public institution. What’s more, she says, students at for-profit institutions often drop out before completing their degree, which means many students are left mired in debt and with credits that are not easily transferable.

“The system that we’ve come to rely on to increase access to higher education to the most vulnerable among us really only compounds their poverty and their risk factors,” Cottom says. “That’s the exact opposite of what higher education is supposed to do.”

Interview Highlights

Lower Ed

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

by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Hardcover, 228 pages |

purchase

On what the enrollment process was like when she was working at a for-profit college

The process starts with the first phone call. So when you see those ads that say, “Call 1-800 such-and-such to change your life today,” when you call that number someone like me would answer on the other line. And the first thing we would do was to try to get as much of your contact information and your demographic information as possible, because we needed to know how to find you.

Once I had gotten that information, my next goal was to get you to visit the school as quickly as possible, and I mean in the next 24 to 48 hours. … To sign up for school, they had to physically sign what we called an enrollment agreement. So having them physically there removed all of the barriers to them not signing up. …

Once that decision [to enroll] had been made, all of your other decisions were made for you. … We ordered all of your books; we handled all of your financial aid paperwork for you; we ordered your high school transcripts for you. The process from the point of contacting someone like me at the technical school to the first time you could show up for the first day of class was, on average, about two weeks. It’s a pretty rapid process and part of making the process rapid was to have someone like me holding your hand throughout.

On why for-profit colleges are more expensive than nonprofit colleges

The only way they have to generate revenue or profit is from tuition. So if you’re a financialized organization or a corporate shareholder-owned, for-profit college that relies on tuition growth to generate your profit, the only way you can do that is to keep increasing costs. So they tend to peg the tuition costs to the fully allowable amount that students are allowed to borrow from the federal student aid program.

On when she started to feel conflicted about working at a for-profit college

When I saw relatively poor and low-income students deciding to take on both [federal] student loan debt and private student loan debt and inviting in their family members to cosign on additional loans — so sort of spreading their risk around into their social networks so that they could afford this education — I really started to ask whether they could ever afford it at all. Should they have been there if they had to go through all of those steps to afford the tuition?

On what happens when students drop out of a for-profit college

Debt has made our choice of higher education options far riskier than they were 20 or 30 years ago. And in the for-profit college sector that’s especially acute because those students are more likely to be poor or low-income or sort of dancing along the line of poverty. … Because of that, for-profit colleges really aren’t set up to transform these students’ lives in the way that we think higher education is supposed to do. …

What we see in the for-profit college sector is those students drop out with more debt, making it harder for them to return, especially if they have problems repaying that debt while they are out of school. … When they do return, it is easier for them to return to another for-profit college because those credits earned … are not as portable. So in many ways what happens is that the students in the for-profit college sector are really cycling in and out and through the for-profit college sector, which we know is more expensive, where they will incur more debt and where they have lower outcomes when they graduate, if they ever do graduate.

On how for-profit colleges exploit the belief that all education is good education

Education is foundational to the narrative of social mobility in this country. … Probably nothing is more American than the idea that, through hard work, everybody can separate themselves from the circumstances of their birth; through achievement and hard work we can all get ahead. …

People actually believe in that — even poor people who have very little reason to believe in it because they’ve gone to relatively poor K-12 schools and had negative experiences. Over and over again, I heard people espousing their faith in education. …

The problem is when our education gospel doesn’t make a distinction between good education and risky education. And here in that gap is where for-profit colleges flourish. … If we say there’s no such thing as “bad school,” it makes a job like the one I once had at the technical school much easier to do. It is easy [to] sell people when they … [don’t] understand the idea that school could actually leave them worse off than when they started.

Emma Donoghue Helps Kids Deal With Dementia (And Still Has Fun) In ‘The Lotterys’


Readers may remember Emma Donoghue for her blockbuster novel Room — the one about a happy little boy growing up in horrifying conditions: Born into captivity. Mom abducted.

Where Room was darkness pierced with light, Donoghue’s latest — it’s actually for young readers — is pretty much all light. Even the idea came out of fun, Donoghue says. “I don’t usually make up my books during dinner parties, but this one came out of a conversation in a very raucous, noisy New Year’s Eve dinner party,” she remembers. “My hostess said to me, ‘How come there aren’t good books for middle grade that feature kids with two mothers? You know, write me one, Emma,’ she said. And then I thought, while I’m at it, let’s make it really big — you know, go big or go home.”

So Donoghue dreamed up a big, boisterous, diverse family, one that starts with two sets of same sex couples deciding to have children: “Once upon a time, a man from Delhi and man from Yukon fell in love, and so did a woman from Jamaica and a Mohawk woman. The two couples became best friends and had a baby together. When they won the lottery, they gave up their jobs and found a big old house where their family could learn and grow … and grow some more.”

The book is called The Lotterys Plus One. The family, by the way, grows to include seven kids. And that “plus one” of the title turns out to be the addition that tips the family over the edge.

Interview Highlights

On Sumac, our guide to the family

I would say Sumac — and by the way, all the children are named after trees, because the parents are such hippies — Sumac is the one who sort of keeps them all up to the mark. You know, she organizes the family photos slide shows … and I liked the idea of taking this good girl and plunking her down in a very chaotic household. She’s surrounded by siblings behaving badly, and often parents … so I liked the idea that the sensible, really naturally introverted one, would be sort of the ringmasters of all this chaos, perhaps.

On “Grumps,” the grandfather who comes to live with the Lotterys after being diagnosed with dementia

Well, in a way, the novel is all about culture clash, and although Sumac is perfectly welcoming in general, it’s hard for her to make room for this curmudgeonly old man who has never sought out his son’s family, doesn’t like his son being gay, even. So you know, he’s critical of every aspect of the house … he’s really an antagonistic house guest to have, and of course he’s wretchedly unhappy at suddenly being yanked away from his own independent life. So really, the novel tries to deal sympathetically with the fact that there’s some right on all sides here.

On writing about dementia for young readers

This is one of the first things I decided about the book, because my own mum has been living with dementia for six years now, and she had just been diagnosed when I planned this book. And everything I read about dementia for children had a dreary tone to it, a sort of “let’s stop the action and all give you sad facts,” you know? So I don’t believe there’s any subject that can’t be handled with a little bit of spark, so I try and make it very accurate, but also accept the humor that can be in misunderstandings, and let him be a real character, not a textbook — and above all, I avoided being too sad, in that the children didn’t know this grandfather before, so they’re forming a brand new relationship with this man. It’s not about seeing a loving relationship ebb away.

Editor Shannon Rhoades, producer Danny Hajek and web producer Petra Mayer contributed to this story.

How For-Profit Colleges Sell ‘Risky Education’ To The Most Vulnerable


For-profit colleges have faced federal and state investigations into their aggressive recruiting tactics.
For-profit colleges have faced federal and state investigations into their aggressive recruiting tactics.

For-profit colleges have faced federal and state investigations in recent years for their aggressive recruiting tactics — accusations that come as no surprise to author Tressie McMillan Cottom.

Cottom worked as an enrollment officer at two different for-profit colleges, but quit because she felt uncomfortable selling students an education they couldn’t afford. Her new book, Lower Ed, argues that for-profit colleges exploit racial, gender and economic inequality.

Cottom tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross that for-profit institutions tend to focus their recruiting on students who qualify for the maximum amount of student aid. “That happens to be the poorest among us,” she says. “And because of how our society is set up, the poorest among us tend to be women and people of color.”

Tressie McMillan Cottom has a Ph.D. in sociology and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The New Press


hide caption

toggle caption

The New Press

Tressie McMillan Cottom has a Ph.D. in sociology and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The New Press

Though for-profit colleges hold out the promise of a better future, Cottom notes that the credentials they offer tend to be 30 to 40 percent more expensive than the same credentials from a nonprofit public institution. What’s more, she says, students at for-profit institutions often drop out before completing their degree, which means many students are left mired in debt and with credits that are not easily transferable.

“The system that we’ve come to rely on to increase access to higher education to the most vulnerable among us really only compounds their poverty and their risk factors,” Cottom says. “That’s the exact opposite of what higher education is supposed to do.”

Interview Highlights

Lower Ed

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

by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Hardcover, 228 pages |

purchase

On what the enrollment process was like when she was working at a for-profit college

The process starts with the first phone call. So when you see those ads that say, “Call 1-800 such-and-such to change your life today,” when you call that number someone like me would answer on the other line. And the first thing we would do was to try to get as much of your contact information and your demographic information as possible, because we needed to know how to find you.

Once I had gotten that information, my next goal was to get you to visit the school as quickly as possible, and I mean in the next 24 to 48 hours. … To sign up for school, they had to physically sign what we called an enrollment agreement. So having them physically there removed all of the barriers to them not signing up. …

Once that decision [to enroll] had been made, all of your other decisions were made for you. … We ordered all of your books; we handled all of your financial aid paperwork for you; we ordered your high school transcripts for you. The process from the point of contacting someone like me at the technical school to the first time you could show up for the first day of class was, on average, about two weeks. It’s a pretty rapid process and part of making the process rapid was to have someone like me holding your hand throughout.

On why for-profit colleges are more expensive than nonprofit colleges

The only way they have to generate revenue or profit is from tuition. So if you’re a financialized organization or a corporate shareholder-owned, for-profit college that relies on tuition growth to generate your profit, the only way you can do that is to keep increasing costs. So they tend to peg the tuition costs to the fully allowable amount that students are allowed to borrow from the federal student aid program.

On when she started to feel conflicted about working at a for-profit college

When I saw relatively poor and low-income students deciding to take on both [federal] student loan debt and private student loan debt and inviting in their family members to cosign on additional loans — so sort of spreading their risk around into their social networks so that they could afford this education — I really started to ask whether they could ever afford it at all. Should they have been there if they had to go through all of those steps to afford the tuition?

On what happens when students drop out of a for-profit college

Debt has made our choice of higher education options far riskier than they were 20 or 30 years ago. And in the for-profit college sector that’s especially acute because those students are more likely to be poor or low-income or sort of dancing along the line of poverty. … Because of that, for-profit colleges really aren’t set up to transform these students’ lives in the way that we think higher education is supposed to do. …

What we see in the for-profit college sector is those students drop out with more debt, making it harder for them to return, especially if they have problems repaying that debt while they are out of school. … When they do return, it is easier for them to return to another for-profit college because those credits earned … are not as portable. So in many ways what happens is that the students in the for-profit college sector are really cycling in and out and through the for-profit college sector, which we know is more expensive, where they will incur more debt and where they have lower outcomes when they graduate, if they ever do graduate.

On how for-profit colleges exploit the belief that all education is good education

Education is foundational to the narrative of social mobility in this country. … Probably nothing is more American than the idea that, through hard work, everybody can separate themselves from the circumstances of their birth; through achievement and hard work we can all get ahead. …

People actually believe in that — even poor people who have very little reason to believe in it because they’ve gone to relatively poor K-12 schools and had negative experiences. Over and over again, I heard people espousing their faith in education. …

The problem is when our education gospel doesn’t make a distinction between good education and risky education. And here in that gap is where for-profit colleges flourish. … If we say there’s no such thing as “bad school,” it makes a job like the one I once had at the technical school much easier to do. It is easy [to] sell people when they … [don’t] understand the idea that school could actually leave them worse off than when they started.

Emma Donoghue Helps Kids Deal With Dementia (And Still Has Fun) In ‘The Lotterys’


Readers may remember Emma Donoghue for her blockbuster novel Room — the one about a happy little boy growing up in horrifying conditions: Born into captivity. Mom abducted.

Where Room was darkness pierced with light, Donoghue’s latest — it’s actually for young readers — is pretty much all light. Even the idea came out of fun, Donoghue says. “I don’t usually make up my books during dinner parties, but this one came out of a conversation in a very raucous, noisy New Year’s Eve dinner party,” she remembers. “My hostess said to me, ‘How come there aren’t good books for middle grade that feature kids with two mothers? You know, write me one, Emma,’ she said. And then I thought, while I’m at it, let’s make it really big — you know, go big or go home.”

So Donoghue dreamed up a big, boisterous, diverse family, one that starts with two sets of same sex couples deciding to have children: “Once upon a time, a man from Delhi and man from Yukon fell in love, and so did a woman from Jamaica and a Mohawk woman. The two couples became best friends and had a baby together. When they won the lottery, they gave up their jobs and found a big old house where their family could learn and grow … and grow some more.”

The book is called The Lotterys Plus One. The family, by the way, grows to include seven kids. And that “plus one” of the title turns out to be the addition that tips the family over the edge.

Interview Highlights

On Sumac, our guide to the family

I would say Sumac — and by the way, all the children are named after trees, because the parents are such hippies — Sumac is the one who sort of keeps them all up to the mark. You know, she organizes the family photos slide shows … and I liked the idea of taking this good girl and plunking her down in a very chaotic household. She’s surrounded by siblings behaving badly, and often parents … so I liked the idea that the sensible, really naturally introverted one, would be sort of the ringmasters of all this chaos, perhaps.

On “Grumps,” the grandfather who comes to live with the Lotterys after being diagnosed with dementia

Well, in a way, the novel is all about culture clash, and although Sumac is perfectly welcoming in general, it’s hard for her to make room for this curmudgeonly old man who has never sought out his son’s family, doesn’t like his son being gay, even. So you know, he’s critical of every aspect of the house … he’s really an antagonistic house guest to have, and of course he’s wretchedly unhappy at suddenly being yanked away from his own independent life. So really, the novel tries to deal sympathetically with the fact that there’s some right on all sides here.

On writing about dementia for young readers

This is one of the first things I decided about the book, because my own mum has been living with dementia for six years now, and she had just been diagnosed when I planned this book. And everything I read about dementia for children had a dreary tone to it, a sort of “let’s stop the action and all give you sad facts,” you know? So I don’t believe there’s any subject that can’t be handled with a little bit of spark, so I try and make it very accurate, but also accept the humor that can be in misunderstandings, and let him be a real character, not a textbook — and above all, I avoided being too sad, in that the children didn’t know this grandfather before, so they’re forming a brand new relationship with this man. It’s not about seeing a loving relationship ebb away.

Editor Shannon Rhoades, producer Danny Hajek and web producer Petra Mayer contributed to this story.

How For-Profit Colleges Sell ‘Risky Education’ To The Most Vulnerable


For-profit colleges have faced federal and state investigations into their aggressive recruiting tactics.
For-profit colleges have faced federal and state investigations into their aggressive recruiting tactics.

For-profit colleges have faced federal and state investigations in recent years for their aggressive recruiting tactics — accusations that come as no surprise to author Tressie McMillan Cottom.

Cottom worked as an enrollment officer at two different for-profit colleges, but quit because she felt uncomfortable selling students an education they couldn’t afford. Her new book, Lower Ed, argues that for-profit colleges exploit racial, gender and economic inequality.

Cottom tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross that for-profit institutions tend to focus their recruiting on students who qualify for the maximum amount of student aid. “That happens to be the poorest among us,” she says. “And because of how our society is set up, the poorest among us tend to be women and people of color.”

Tressie McMillan Cottom has a Ph.D. in sociology and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The New Press


hide caption

toggle caption

The New Press

Tressie McMillan Cottom has a Ph.D. in sociology and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The New Press

Though for-profit colleges hold out the promise of a better future, Cottom notes that the credentials they offer tend to be 30 to 40 percent more expensive than the same credentials from a nonprofit public institution. What’s more, she says, students at for-profit institutions often drop out before completing their degree, which means many students are left mired in debt and with credits that are not easily transferable.

“The system that we’ve come to rely on to increase access to higher education to the most vulnerable among us really only compounds their poverty and their risk factors,” Cottom says. “That’s the exact opposite of what higher education is supposed to do.”

Interview Highlights

Lower Ed

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

by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Hardcover, 228 pages |

purchase

On what the enrollment process was like when she was working at a for-profit college

The process starts with the first phone call. So when you see those ads that say, “Call 1-800 such-and-such to change your life today,” when you call that number someone like me would answer on the other line. And the first thing we would do was to try to get as much of your contact information and your demographic information as possible, because we needed to know how to find you.

Once I had gotten that information, my next goal was to get you to visit the school as quickly as possible, and I mean in the next 24 to 48 hours. … To sign up for school, they had to physically sign what we called an enrollment agreement. So having them physically there removed all of the barriers to them not signing up. …

Once that decision [to enroll] had been made, all of your other decisions were made for you. … We ordered all of your books; we handled all of your financial aid paperwork for you; we ordered your high school transcripts for you. The process from the point of contacting someone like me at the technical school to the first time you could show up for the first day of class was, on average, about two weeks. It’s a pretty rapid process and part of making the process rapid was to have someone like me holding your hand throughout.

On why for-profit colleges are more expensive than nonprofit colleges

The only way they have to generate revenue or profit is from tuition. So if you’re a financialized organization or a corporate shareholder-owned, for-profit college that relies on tuition growth to generate your profit, the only way you can do that is to keep increasing costs. So they tend to peg the tuition costs to the fully allowable amount that students are allowed to borrow from the federal student aid program.

On when she started to feel conflicted about working at a for-profit college

When I saw relatively poor and low-income students deciding to take on both [federal] student loan debt and private student loan debt and inviting in their family members to cosign on additional loans — so sort of spreading their risk around into their social networks so that they could afford this education — I really started to ask whether they could ever afford it at all. Should they have been there if they had to go through all of those steps to afford the tuition?

On what happens when students drop out of a for-profit college

Debt has made our choice of higher education options far riskier than they were 20 or 30 years ago. And in the for-profit college sector that’s especially acute because those students are more likely to be poor or low-income or sort of dancing along the line of poverty. … Because of that, for-profit colleges really aren’t set up to transform these students’ lives in the way that we think higher education is supposed to do. …

What we see in the for-profit college sector is those students drop out with more debt, making it harder for them to return, especially if they have problems repaying that debt while they are out of school. … When they do return, it is easier for them to return to another for-profit college because those credits earned … are not as portable. So in many ways what happens is that the students in the for-profit college sector are really cycling in and out and through the for-profit college sector, which we know is more expensive, where they will incur more debt and where they have lower outcomes when they graduate, if they ever do graduate.

On how for-profit colleges exploit the belief that all education is good education

Education is foundational to the narrative of social mobility in this country. … Probably nothing is more American than the idea that, through hard work, everybody can separate themselves from the circumstances of their birth; through achievement and hard work we can all get ahead. …

People actually believe in that — even poor people who have very little reason to believe in it because they’ve gone to relatively poor K-12 schools and had negative experiences. Over and over again, I heard people espousing their faith in education. …

The problem is when our education gospel doesn’t make a distinction between good education and risky education. And here in that gap is where for-profit colleges flourish. … If we say there’s no such thing as “bad school,” it makes a job like the one I once had at the technical school much easier to do. It is easy [to] sell people when they … [don’t] understand the idea that school could actually leave them worse off than when they started.

Emma Donoghue Helps Kids Deal With Dementia (And Still Has Fun) In ‘The Lotterys’


Readers may remember Emma Donoghue for her blockbuster novel Room — the one about a happy little boy growing up in horrifying conditions: Born into captivity. Mom abducted.

Where Room was darkness pierced with light, Donoghue’s latest — it’s actually for young readers — is pretty much all light. Even the idea came out of fun, Donoghue says. “I don’t usually make up my books during dinner parties, but this one came out of a conversation in a very raucous, noisy New Year’s Eve dinner party,” she remembers. “My hostess said to me, ‘How come there aren’t good books for middle grade that feature kids with two mothers? You know, write me one, Emma,’ she said. And then I thought, while I’m at it, let’s make it really big — you know, go big or go home.”

So Donoghue dreamed up a big, boisterous, diverse family, one that starts with two sets of same sex couples deciding to have children: “Once upon a time, a man from Delhi and man from Yukon fell in love, and so did a woman from Jamaica and a Mohawk woman. The two couples became best friends and had a baby together. When they won the lottery, they gave up their jobs and found a big old house where their family could learn and grow … and grow some more.”

The book is called The Lotterys Plus One. The family, by the way, grows to include seven kids. And that “plus one” of the title turns out to be the addition that tips the family over the edge.

Interview Highlights

On Sumac, our guide to the family

I would say Sumac — and by the way, all the children are named after trees, because the parents are such hippies — Sumac is the one who sort of keeps them all up to the mark. You know, she organizes the family photos slide shows … and I liked the idea of taking this good girl and plunking her down in a very chaotic household. She’s surrounded by siblings behaving badly, and often parents … so I liked the idea that the sensible, really naturally introverted one, would be sort of the ringmasters of all this chaos, perhaps.

On “Grumps,” the grandfather who comes to live with the Lotterys after being diagnosed with dementia

Well, in a way, the novel is all about culture clash, and although Sumac is perfectly welcoming in general, it’s hard for her to make room for this curmudgeonly old man who has never sought out his son’s family, doesn’t like his son being gay, even. So you know, he’s critical of every aspect of the house … he’s really an antagonistic house guest to have, and of course he’s wretchedly unhappy at suddenly being yanked away from his own independent life. So really, the novel tries to deal sympathetically with the fact that there’s some right on all sides here.

On writing about dementia for young readers

This is one of the first things I decided about the book, because my own mum has been living with dementia for six years now, and she had just been diagnosed when I planned this book. And everything I read about dementia for children had a dreary tone to it, a sort of “let’s stop the action and all give you sad facts,” you know? So I don’t believe there’s any subject that can’t be handled with a little bit of spark, so I try and make it very accurate, but also accept the humor that can be in misunderstandings, and let him be a real character, not a textbook — and above all, I avoided being too sad, in that the children didn’t know this grandfather before, so they’re forming a brand new relationship with this man. It’s not about seeing a loving relationship ebb away.

Editor Shannon Rhoades, producer Danny Hajek and web producer Petra Mayer contributed to this story.

How For-Profit Colleges Sell ‘Risky Education’ To The Most Vulnerable


For-profit colleges have faced federal and state investigations into their aggressive recruiting tactics.
For-profit colleges have faced federal and state investigations into their aggressive recruiting tactics.

For-profit colleges have faced federal and state investigations in recent years for their aggressive recruiting tactics — accusations that come as no surprise to author Tressie McMillan Cottom.

Cottom worked as an enrollment officer at two different for-profit colleges, but quit because she felt uncomfortable selling students an education they couldn’t afford. Her new book, Lower Ed, argues that for-profit colleges exploit racial, gender and economic inequality.

Cottom tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross that for-profit institutions tend to focus their recruiting on students who qualify for the maximum amount of student aid. “That happens to be the poorest among us,” she says. “And because of how our society is set up, the poorest among us tend to be women and people of color.”

Tressie McMillan Cottom has a Ph.D. in sociology and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The New Press


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The New Press

Tressie McMillan Cottom has a Ph.D. in sociology and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The New Press

Though for-profit colleges hold out the promise of a better future, Cottom notes that the credentials they offer tend to be 30 to 40 percent more expensive than the same credentials from a nonprofit public institution. What’s more, she says, students at for-profit institutions often drop out before completing their degree, which means many students are left mired in debt and with credits that are not easily transferable.

“The system that we’ve come to rely on to increase access to higher education to the most vulnerable among us really only compounds their poverty and their risk factors,” Cottom says. “That’s the exact opposite of what higher education is supposed to do.”

Interview Highlights

Lower Ed

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

by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Hardcover, 228 pages |

purchase

On what the enrollment process was like when she was working at a for-profit college

The process starts with the first phone call. So when you see those ads that say, “Call 1-800 such-and-such to change your life today,” when you call that number someone like me would answer on the other line. And the first thing we would do was to try to get as much of your contact information and your demographic information as possible, because we needed to know how to find you.

Once I had gotten that information, my next goal was to get you to visit the school as quickly as possible, and I mean in the next 24 to 48 hours. … To sign up for school, they had to physically sign what we called an enrollment agreement. So having them physically there removed all of the barriers to them not signing up. …

Once that decision [to enroll] had been made, all of your other decisions were made for you. … We ordered all of your books; we handled all of your financial aid paperwork for you; we ordered your high school transcripts for you. The process from the point of contacting someone like me at the technical school to the first time you could show up for the first day of class was, on average, about two weeks. It’s a pretty rapid process and part of making the process rapid was to have someone like me holding your hand throughout.

On why for-profit colleges are more expensive than nonprofit colleges

The only way they have to generate revenue or profit is from tuition. So if you’re a financialized organization or a corporate shareholder-owned, for-profit college that relies on tuition growth to generate your profit, the only way you can do that is to keep increasing costs. So they tend to peg the tuition costs to the fully allowable amount that students are allowed to borrow from the federal student aid program.

On when she started to feel conflicted about working at a for-profit college

When I saw relatively poor and low-income students deciding to take on both [federal] student loan debt and private student loan debt and inviting in their family members to cosign on additional loans — so sort of spreading their risk around into their social networks so that they could afford this education — I really started to ask whether they could ever afford it at all. Should they have been there if they had to go through all of those steps to afford the tuition?

On what happens when students drop out of a for-profit college

Debt has made our choice of higher education options far riskier than they were 20 or 30 years ago. And in the for-profit college sector that’s especially acute because those students are more likely to be poor or low-income or sort of dancing along the line of poverty. … Because of that, for-profit colleges really aren’t set up to transform these students’ lives in the way that we think higher education is supposed to do. …

What we see in the for-profit college sector is those students drop out with more debt, making it harder for them to return, especially if they have problems repaying that debt while they are out of school. … When they do return, it is easier for them to return to another for-profit college because those credits earned … are not as portable. So in many ways what happens is that the students in the for-profit college sector are really cycling in and out and through the for-profit college sector, which we know is more expensive, where they will incur more debt and where they have lower outcomes when they graduate, if they ever do graduate.

On how for-profit colleges exploit the belief that all education is good education

Education is foundational to the narrative of social mobility in this country. … Probably nothing is more American than the idea that, through hard work, everybody can separate themselves from the circumstances of their birth; through achievement and hard work we can all get ahead. …

People actually believe in that — even poor people who have very little reason to believe in it because they’ve gone to relatively poor K-12 schools and had negative experiences. Over and over again, I heard people espousing their faith in education. …

The problem is when our education gospel doesn’t make a distinction between good education and risky education. And here in that gap is where for-profit colleges flourish. … If we say there’s no such thing as “bad school,” it makes a job like the one I once had at the technical school much easier to do. It is easy [to] sell people when they … [don’t] understand the idea that school could actually leave them worse off than when they started.