Article — From the October 2011 issue

Leveling the Field

What I learned from for-profit education

( 4 of 8 )

Dr. U.’s disquisition on goals notwithstanding, the purpose of our mandatory three-week orientation was, well, to orient us to the Phoenix system, which meant learning our way around the university’s online interface. The key to Phoenix’s profit model, like those at so many large corporations, is scalability. Economies of scale allow for-profits to spend considerably less per student on instruction than conventional universities—an average of $3,069, compared with $7,534 for public universities and $15,215 for private ones—which in turn allows them to spend a healthy portion of each student’s tuition on advertising while passing on the rest as shareholder profit.

In practice, this means that Phoenix’s courses are designed by a corporate development team, which works to ensure uniformity across the system. Course facilitators are fungible, the courses structured so that there is little difference between taking one online or “on ground.” Tests submitted through the website may never be seen, let alone graded, by the person you encounter each week in the classroom. Many of the other responsibilities of teaching have been taken out of the instructors’ hands. For example, all papers must be run through Phoenix’s proprietary plagiarism checker—which generates an originality score based on the paper’s similarity to published works—prior to submission. As the website explains, “You’ll have the chance to revise your paper before submitting it to your instructor, avoiding any unnecessary awkward situations.”

Vaneka had told us that the orientation should be taken seriously, that it was possible to fail it, but it turned out that none of us need have worried. The only real requirement was to show up. Ty, Rob, Junior, and I were all passed through UNIV 101 to GEN 195: Foundations of University Studies, our first credit-bearing course at Phoenix. We were joined there by sixteen other students, whose orientation had been led by Dr. Linda Price, who was also the facilitator of GEN 195. The other students ranged in age from their early twenties to their forties. Most had children.

Mike had taken a job with the city right out of high school, back in the Eighties. He’d put in enough years to start collecting his pension, and he planned to start a second career. “In the old days,” he said, “you could get a good job with a high school diploma, but it’s not really that way anymore.”

Wilson was just out of the Army. His English wasn’t good, and he seemed terrified to be speaking in front of a full classroom, even as he told us about serving tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army was paying for him to get an education, he said. It would be a waste not to take advantage of that.

Ebony had dropped out of high school to start a modeling career. When that didn’t pan out, she got her GED and a job as a receptionist at a financial firm, but the place closed during the downturn, so now she was back in school.

Paul was into graphic design, Web stuff. He’d gotten a certificate right across Journal Square, at the Chubb Institute, but he wanted to run his own company, and he’d come to Phoenix for a business degree.

Maria was the only person in the room dressed for an office job. She told us that she’d put her daughter through college, and now it was her turn.

John was doing social work. “Helping at-risk kids, kids that put themselves on the wrong road. I’m trying to keep them out of prison. You’ve got to have the degree to get your license, though.”

[7] Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor certificate, pronounced, by Jackie at least, “kay sack.”

“Well, I guess we’re in competition,” Jackie said. “I work with the people who are already in prison. Drug counseling. Drugs, you know? It’s a terrible thing what they do to a person’s life. I already have my CASAC,[7] but for a lot of jobs you need the bachelor’s. Anyway, it’s recession-proof. People are always going to be taking drugs, messing up, getting themselves in trouble. But it’s been a long time since I’ve been in a classroom, if you want to know the truth, so I’m pretty nervous about it.”

“What about you, Flow?” Dr. Price asked the young woman sitting across from me.

“I’m Flow,” Flow said.

“Do you want to add anything else about yourself?”

Flow smiled uneasily.

“Not really.”

Taken together, my classmates confirmed a generally agreed-upon fact about proprietary schools: they serve a population that struggles with conventional education. To critics like Senator Harkin, this means that for-profits take advantage of those in the worst position to identify a scam, and those who can least afford to be taken in by one. But to the schools’ defenders, it means that they offer opportunities to those whom the rest of American higher education has served poorly—or shut out entirely. At the time of Harkin’s hearings, the New York Times reported that hundreds of students from for-profit colleges were marching outside the Capitol in T-shirts that read my education. my job. my choice. Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leaders contacted Education Secretary Arne Duncan to object to proposed “gainful employment” rules, which would measure graduates’ income against their debt load and disqualify from funding schools whose ratios are out of line. Jackson worried that the rules would harm lower-income and minority students. Former Clinton special counsel Lanny Davis, now employed by a for-profit education trade group, went a step further, suggesting that singling out proprietary schools had “the uncomfortable look and feel of disparate class and racial treatment.”

Seventeen of the twenty students in my class were black or Hispanic; everyone seemed uncomfortable in the classroom. Some, like Jackie, claimed to have overcome this discomfort because the jobs they wanted required a degree, but most seemed drawn by less concrete forces.

Once we were all introduced, Dr. Price told us about the course we were beginning. Where orientation had been a kind of flyover of subjects like time management and goal setting, GEN 195 would really get down and dirty with these things. The first chapter of our textbook, Your College Experience, was entitled “Exploring Your Purpose for Attending College,” and that’s where we would begin. It seemed strange to me that a credit-bearing college course should be dedicated to telling students why they should go to college, but the entire first-year sequence turns out to be an almost surreal riff on the socialization process of higher education, where secondary characteristics of college graduates become the actual subjects of the courses. Having read in Your College Experience that graduates have better health outcomes, students could look forward a few weeks down the line to tackling topics like “optimal body weight” and “the rewards of physical fitness” in SCI 163: Elements of Health and Wellness. Having discovered that college graduates are more responsible borrowers, students could look forward to FP 120: Essentials of Personal Finance, in which we would come to “recognize the advantages and disadvantages of credit cards.” To call this material “remedial” would imply that such information would usually be considered part of a pre-college curriculum in the first place. Instead, it is emblematic of the basic confusion of correlation and causation that animates our obsessive drive to increase graduation rates. Because college graduates exhibit a collection of socially beneficial traits, we have come to believe that the development of these traits is college’s primary purpose. Even more dubiously, we have come to believe that merely handing out degrees will disseminate these benefits.

“College is the primary way in which people achieve ‘upward social mobility,’” Dr. Price read from the text. “Receiving a college degree helps ‘level the playing field’ for everyone. A college degree can minimize or eliminate differences due to background, race, ethnicity, family income level, national origin, immigration status, family lineage, and personal connections.

“It used to be there were lots of good jobs you could get without a college degree,” she added a bit more directly. “Those jobs don’t exist anymore.”

“Excuse me,” a voice called out from the back for the room. “I have to disagree here.”

“Why is that, Ebony?” Dr. Price asked.

“See, I’m the kind of girl who can talk my way into anything. When I started my job, I was just answering phones. But I told them, You need me here. I got to the point where I was making more than $40,000, and I was only twenty-five years old.”

“Well, all right, Ebony,” Dr. Price said. “But you’re here, right? So you recognize that there’s something that you want that you can’t get without a college degree. Why don’t we talk a bit more about our purpose? Let’s talk about what motivates us to be here. What’s going to keep us coming in even when it’s hard to do? What is going to keep you at it?”

She was asking the same question Vaneka had been asking me a few weeks before: What is your personal stake in all this?

“I want to do it for my kids,” Wilson said. Four or five others nodded at this. “I’ve already done a lot for my kids,” said Maria. “I want to do this for myself.” “What about you, Jackie?” Dr. Price asked.

Jackie was quiet for a moment.

“I’ve got this cousin, you know? She’s real sick with cancer, dying. She’s the most honest, caring person I ever met. I go to visit her, and I think of all the stuff I’ve messed up in life, all the trouble I’ve gotten myself into. Messing around with drugs and making bad choices. I should be in prison, you know? I should be dead. I’d give anything to be the one there in the hospital bed instead of her. She should have all these years left of her life. I don’t deserve to have them. But that’s not up to me, you know? The only thing I can do is try to make something of these years I’ve got that she doesn’t have. So I think about her.”

“Okay,” said Dr. Price. “Thank you, Jackie. It sounds like you’ll have some real motivation. What about you, Flow?”

Flow shook her head.

“I’m just trying to keep my parents off my back.”

Later, Flow gave me a somewhat different version of why she wound up at Phoenix. She wanted to be a cartoonist, she said, and she’d been taking some multimedia classes at Essex County College. There was a girl there, and Flow fell pretty hard for her. “I was crazy in love,” Flow said. But it didn’t work out. “My heart was broken,” she said. “I lost a lot of motivation to do stuff. I stopped going to school and I was just around the house a lot. My parents were bugging. So I went online and looked at some different places, just sort of curious about it. And then this guy from Phoenix called up, Rafael, and he started talking to me about it. I didn’t think much about it, but then he kept calling, a bunch of times, and kept talking to me.”

Flow smiled at me.

“I started having these dreams. I dreamt about what school would be like. I dreamt about what kind of girls would be there. And in my dreams, everything looked real nice. And I don’t know, I tried to ignore it, but I kept having these dreams. And then Rafael called again. Man, he called a lot of times. And I told him, Sure, I’d give it a try.”

is an associate editor of Harper's Magazine. His previous article for the magazine, "Supernumerary," appeared in the March 2011 issue. His first novel will be published next year by Tin House Books.

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