Thursday, August 28, 2014

Working at a For-Profit College - Why Do They Exist?

Morrison University
Last night, the local news in Reno announced that Morrison University, a for-profit university, was closing its doors due to Anthem Education, its corporate parent, filing for Chapter 11. This follows an extended meltdown of Corinthian Colleges, which is currently undergoing a criminal probe, ongoing financial issues at ITT Tech, and increasing pressure on the University of Phoenix over its how it conducts its operations and the programs it offers to veterans. Since I currently work at a for-profit college and have been for almost a year, I'm understandably... not alarmed, but concerned about the direction my employer's industry is going. While reading about the state of the industry I work in, however, I noticed something missing - our side of the story.

So what's it like working at a for-profit school, anyway?

Before I begin, I'll point out that I'm not a cheerleader. If you want to hear stories about how for-profit schools change students' lives for the better, leads them to better opportunities, and so on, contact the admissions department of any nearby school. They'll be happy to chat your ear off about all of the success stories they've seen, tell you all about our placement rate, and so on. That's not why I'm writing this today. I'll also point out that I'm rather fond of my job and rather fond of my employer, so if you're looking for a harsh exposé on the for-profit college sector, that's also not why I'm here. There are plenty of those already anyway. So, with that, let's begin.

Why do for-profit colleges exist and why do students enroll in them?

[NOTE: When I first started this post, I expected this section to be a couple of paragraphs at most. As I started writing, I realized this section deserved its own post, so I'll pick up on what it's like to work at a for-profit college in subsequent posts.]

In many countries, students get the Sorting Hat placed upon them fairly early in life - in the early teens, if they're academically inclined, they'll be placed on a university track, where students experience demanding college prep courses. If they're not, they're placed on a vocational track, where students receive training in various careers, ultimately focusing on a particular career of their choice by the end of graduation.

The United States, however, doesn't do this for a variety of cultural and financial reasons. Culturally, we're highly allergic to telling people what they can and can't do, and this allergy turns anaphylactic when we talk about our children. No parent wants some faceless bureaucrat (okay, highly accessible public school teacher or school administrator, but they're all government workers and government workers in America are automatically "faceless others" by default, right?) telling them that their child isn't good enough to go to the best schools and become cowboy astronauts, even if - no, especially if - that's true. Financially, meanwhile, it's a lot less expensive to hand a student a book or two and place them in a desk than it is to buy expensive shop equipment and hire instructors at halfway competitive wages away from industry jobs to teach students how to use the shop equipment without inadvertently lighting themselves on fire. Put the two factors together and you get a muddled mess of an education system where, theoretically, every student is placed on a "college bound" track, but where in practice, a majority of American college students have to take remedial education courses after high school to prepare themselves for college-level coursework and absolutely nobody comes out of high school with any sort of useful trade skills.

Why didn't school teach me what these white plastic things are and how to open them?
Once students graduate and become adults, however, we're more than happy to let them sort themselves as they wish. Trouble is, most companies would rather spend as little time as possible training employees and more time getting useful, productive, profitable work out of them. Consequently, most jobs that pay tolerably well require some sort of post-secondary training, either in the form of a college diploma, an accepted industry certification, or some other proof that the prospective employee has spent some of their own time and money on learning how to do the job they're applying for.

This job requires a Master's in Computer Information Systems, CompTIA A+  and Security+ certifications, and at least five years of previous job experience.
To meet this need, the United States has two parallel tracks of post-secondary education available. The first track is the traditional university system, which descended from the old universities in Europe and New England and has since been radically expanded; the second track, meanwhile, are vocational schools. Both tracks have been around for quite some time and have interbred considerably; land-grant universities were originally conceived as vocational-oriented universities. After World War 2 ended and the Cold War started in earnest, however, the United States, noting that people with university educations were generally paid better than their vocational counterparts and noting that we needed more scientists to blow stuff up, collectively decided to throw as many people into the university system as possible.

There have been a few problems with this, though.

For starters, universities were originally designed to teach students how to embrace a "life of the mind". This had roots in universities' original role as "finishing schools" - they were more about the connections made between fellow aristocratic and wealthy classmates and instilling similar interests than actual educational attainment or (the horror!) learning how to work. Since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, universities have largely transitioned from a philosophical "life of the mind" to a focus on theory - a scientific "life of the mind" - over practice, educating students on how the world should be, at least from the view of the Ivory Tower. In order for this focus on the theoretical over the practical to be possible, universities, which were already naturally insular to protect their aristocratic clientele, increasingly became worlds unto themselves, as separated as possible from the practical world outside; this separation, when taken too far, that has led to several far-reaching consequences.

Another issue with university educations is cost - not just money but time. Since university educations focus on theory, it's important to not only understand the theoretical underpinnings of whatever field of study a student chooses to follow, they also have to understand some of the theoretical underpinnings of those theoretical underpinnings. For example, a Computer Science university student, who normally would end up as some sort of programmer after college, wouldn't just need to know the theory of how programming languages work - they also need to know the mathematical theories that underlie the theories that underpin programming languages. Otherwise, there are large sets of programming problems that are simply unsolvable; linear algebra, for example, is used extensively when dealing with large, sparse data sets, like simulating whether there are dust particles in a particular simulated cube of air, or large demographic simulations. For most students, this takes a minimum of 4-5 years, with many Computer Science students these days opting to spend 2-3 more years in school and get a post-graduate degree of some sort. This sometimes means that professionals aren't even starting their careers until their mid to late twenties; in order for that to be financially possible, either someone in the family needs to support the student, the student needs to receive funding (usually student loans) from another source for several years, and/or the student has to pick up some part-time employment somewhere to make ends meet.

Finally, there's the simple matter of aptitude. Not everyone is interested in going to school for several years as an adult, no matter what the financial end result might presumably be. Not everyone possesses the necessary academic talent. Not everyone has the required time management or study skills. Some people are just practical-minded people and have no interest in living a "life of the mind" - they want to go out and do something without spending years of their lives dedicated toward establishing why that something did anything in the first place. There's nothing wrong with this - though it certainly doesn't hurt for, say, a well driller to understand the underlying geology that they're drilling into, it's usually not imperative for them to understand it as fully as a geologist.

So what's the alternative? In a theoretically ideal world, public community colleges. They're cheaper than universities and, frankly, for-profit vocational schools. An Associates degree usually only requires two years, which is considerably shorter than the four or more required for a Bachelor's or a Master's. They're usually a little smaller, which keeps them from getting quite as insulated as larger universities. The academic coursework is usually considerably more relaxed. So what's the problem?

Well, who runs public community colleges? Oh right - the same people that run universities.

This is a problem for a couple of reasons. First, the people running universities are going to be more interested in running universities, not in making sure a bunch of students that wouldn't make the cut at their carefully manicured and groomed institution of higher learning actually get a decent education. Secondly, when the people running universities actually take an interest in running community colleges, they'll do what anyone else that spent their lives not running community colleges would do - they'll run the community college like a university. Consequently, if you want to study to become a bricklayer, you'll need 3 Credits of "Diversity", 6 Credits of Communications/English, 3 Credits of Social Science, 3 Credits of Human Relations, 3 Credits of US and Nevada Constitutions, 3 Credits of Science, and 3 Credits of Mathematics, most of which need to be taken before you can even think about taking a class that lets you touch an actual brick and lay it on something. The goal, of course, is to provide a "well-rounded education" for someone that just wants to learn how to lay bricks; that these "General Education" requirements happen to provide teaching jobs to otherwise employment-challenged liberal arts university graduates is just a textbook example of regulatory capture nice side effect.

This is where for-profit vocational schools step in.

Unlike a public community college, a good for-profit vocational school is accountable to two groups of people - the prospective students that want to get in, get the skills they want and only those skills, and get out, and the people that are interested in hiring those students. The result, when everything goes well, is a faster paced, far more focused education that provides the students exactly with the skills they need to find work in the field and provides employers with fresh labor with precisely the skills they're looking for. Where things go wrong is when the school stops listening to one or both of those two groups, usually because the school is busy listening to a third group. In the case of the schools listed above, all of them share one common trait - they are also accountable to these guys:

What's better than a public school? How about a publicly traded school, preferably funded through piles of government debt? What could possibly go wrong that hasn't gone wrong with the economy since, oh, 2008 or so?
The trouble with public stockholders is most of them are interested in making a profit right now, not after a few years of steady growth. Since most stocks don't pay dividends anymore, this puts pressure on management of any publicly traded company to pursue business decisions that boost profitability immediately, thus quickly boosting the stock price, regardless of what that'll do to the company or its customers in the long term. For a publicly traded college, this means letting anyone with a pulse into any program they want, regardless of whether they have an aptitude for that program or whether that program will lead to a job, and jacking the tuition as high as someone is willing to pay. Sure, it'll lead to the college's reputation in the employment community becoming more radioactive than Pripyat and it'll lead to most of the college's graduates' credit scores becoming more radioactive than Mayak after they refuse to pay back loans for a college education that didn't do them an ounce of good, but it'll make the stock look good right now, which will let the stockholders sell right now, which will let them profit...

Luckily, my employer isn't publicly traded.

Tomorrow I'll dig into what it's like to actually work in a for-profit college, along with how it's different from a more traditional university approach.


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