Tressie McMillan Cottom

Sociologist, Writer, and Public Scholar Class of 2020
Portrait of Tressie McMillan Cottom

Shaping discourse on highly topical issues at the confluence of race, gender, education, and digital technology for broad audiences.

location icon Location
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
age iconAge
43 at time of award

About Tressie's Work

Tressie McMillan Cottom is a sociologist, writer, and public scholar shaping discourse on pressing issues at the confluence of race, gender, education, and digital technology. In work across multiple platforms, ranging from academic scholarship to essays and social media engagement, McMillan Cottom combines analytical insights and personal experiences in a frank, accessible style of communication that resonates with broad audiences within and outside of academia.

In her book-length study of for-profit colleges, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy (2017), McMillan Cottom explores the rapid growth of these institutions in the context of rising inequality in the United States. She examines the industry from multiple perspectives, including her experience as an admissions counselor at a for-profit college and the motives and goals of students from a variety of backgrounds who attend these institutions. Her analysis identifies the systemic conditions supporting the predatory marketing behavior in the for-profit college industry, including the limited accessibility of public institutions, discrimination in credit markets, and the increased necessity of academic credentials for securing a prosperous future. The book has reverberated amongst educators and policymakers and has influenced recent policy debates about the racial, gender, and class inequalities of educational institutions. McMillan Cottom’s most recent book, THICK: And Other Essays (2019), is a collection of essays that offer a powerful treatise on the perilous cultural space occupied by Black women in America. The book’s title references both a colloquial descriptor of a female body type and the sociological concept of “thick description”—ethnographic research providing extensive details on context and social relationships to explain behavior. This double meaning of “thick” permeates the essays, which contain deeply personal meditations on the narrow lens through which Black women are viewed in American society, racial inequities in doctor-patient relationships, and the complexities of intragroup relations among people of African descent, among others.

McMillan Cottom also writes shorter-form pieces for more mainstream media outlets addressing topics ranging from access to higher education to why people with low income buy luxury goods, and she is known as an intellectual leader on Black Twitter. In addition, she has co-launched a Black feminist podcast, Hear to Slay, which provides a forum for presenting and discussing intersectional perspectives on modern culture. With humor, honesty, and erudition, McMillan Cottom is providing a new model for researchers and scholars to bring their findings and insights to bear on highly complex topics that animate contemporary cultural conversations.


Tressie McMillan Cottom holds a BA (2009) from North Carolina Central University and a PhD (2015) from Emory University. In July 2020, she joined the faculty of the University of North Carolina as an associate professor in the School of Library and Information Science and senior research faculty in the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life. She was affiliated with the Department of Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University from 2015 to 2020 and has been a faculty affiliate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University since 2015. McMillan Cottom’s additional publications include the edited volumes Digital Sociologies (2016) and For-Profit Universities: The Shifting Landscape of Marketized Higher Education (2017), and she has been a contributor to Slate, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and Inside Higher Ed.

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In Tressie's Words



Public life is just a story that has been written to justify some atrocities as natural and some lives as disposable. When I say that I write stories to make problems for power, I mean that I rewrite the metaphors we use to rationalize big inequalities in the small decisions that make up our everyday lives—how we go to school, how we work, how we consume and how we love. My life’s creative challenge is wielding the tension between powerful narrative and compelling data to center Black intellectual lives as craft and method. “Radically better metaphors for a radically better public life.”

Published on October 6, 2020

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