I got the shotgun/you got the briefcase

Disclosure: I worked for Kaplan for about four years in its Test Prep division, although I am no longer actively employed with them. (And probably won’t ever be, once this post goes to bed. heh.)

Washington recently has found an easy target in for-profit colleges. Many of the allegations against them, such as deceptive practices regarding financial aid, enrollment, accreditation, and job placement, rightly place the spotlight on completely immoral and unacceptable predation.

However, the witch hunt against for-profit colleges lacks context.

First, as I’ve discussed before, our norm-setters taut college as the be-all-end-all of American evolution. Our culture upholds college as a panacea for all problems and as the epitome of the American Dream. President Obama, himself, frequently has invoked college as America’s savior, setting empty numerical targets for our number of college graduates while paying mere lip service to our K-12 system’s inability to prepare our citizens for baccalaureate excellence. Although proclaiming that we should have more college graduates sounds nice, this number does not matter if these degrees are worth as much as the paper upon which they’re printed. (Ironically, this is one of the many criticisms levied against for-profit colleges.)

For example, the current average GPA of the entering freshmen at my alma mater, UCSD, is 3.96; when I entered, it was 4.1. (Kids today. Slackers.) Even at this freakishly selective public school, only 55% of students graduate within four years, while 85% graduate within six.*

Even if we assume that a good percentage of students self-select out of college and/or timely graduation, whether by dropping out or taking leisure time off, the fact of the matter is that a huge number still are taking longer than four years not out of choice, but out of necessity. Whether they’re taking fewer classes so they can work more hours, or they take a quarter off because they need to take care of a sick family member or save money, or because they need remedial English classes despite being their high school valedictorians (true story, people), for some reason, even this narrowly-winnowed group of overachievers is full of students who simply are unprepared for college academics.

When salutatorians are getting Cs and Ds, despite always studying and never getting drunk, you know there’s a more systemic problem at hand. So, if we want to demonize for-profit colleges for taking advantage of these poor students who can’t handle their classes, get themselves into terrifying amounts of debt, and will never be able to find jobs that pay off said debt in a timely fashion, maybe we should take a look at theoretically affordable, highly competitive traditional schools, as well.

Our world is one in which, when I was teaching summer school, in Oakland Unified, to prepare students for the CAHSEE (state exit exam) English test that all of them had already failed three-five times, and were facing their last shot at a traditional high school diploma, all of those who wanted and planned to go to college said they were going to Cal. I mean, incoming humble brag, but even I didn’t get into Cal. These students know they need to get an education, and most, if not all, never did get to Cal. The education market simply responds to their interest.

Furthermore, most non-profit colleges target a very specific consumer who is both fresh out of high school and has enough money to spend four years not working. For-profit colleges, meanwhile, service consumers from much more varied backgrounds, for better and for worse. On the one hand, more people have the opportunity to fit a college degree around their age, families, or jobs; on the other hand, more people who are ill-prepared for college rigors (and yes, I know ____ is easer than your high school) flush their money down the green-lit toilet.

For-profit colleges often attract students who cannot commit to school full-time, whether for personal or financial reasons. For example, only one of the law schools to which I applied even offers a part-time program. Although I can see why a school would want you to focus completely on it, this simply is not realistic for many who could be great lawyers, whether they’re young and are trying to save money, or older and need to support their families. (Moreover, it’s pretty sad that this vacuum of part-time programs is most prominent at “elite” schools, further hindering social and economic mobility.)

In undergrad, a student must be enrolled at least half-time to qualify for federal financial aid. If she supplements said aid by working concurrently, something will suffer. I, for example, never really focused academically (for many reasons), but A number 1 was definitely the stress of working and, much worse, of worrying about working. Other students choose to take the bare minimum number of credits to qualify for aid, thus delaying their entry into the full-time labor force. Still others take a “normal” courseload but choose classes they think are nominal in their workload and worth, maybe contributing nothing to their majors (hello, the awesomeness that is Gospel Choir), because they just need to hit those minimum credits to get their aid but don’t have the ability and/or energy to deal with three substantive classes.

When we combine even pre-Obama college-tauting rhetoric, unrealistic student admissions expectations, and gross financial illiteracy, it’s more than a little irresponsible to place all blame on for-profit colleges, when they simply are taking advantage of the market that others created. Hey, man; that’s just capitalism.

We demonize for-profit education for taking advantage of people who can’t handle college. We demonize fast food for fattening the poor. We blast thugs for selling drugs on the corner. We hate credit card companies for jacking up interest rates on the financially illiterate. We proclaim that true adulthood demands owning your own home. However, do we fix our schools to make everybody literate citizens? Do we encourage grocers and farmers to provide healthy food at affordable price points? Do we bring all ambitious kids into the formal economy? Do we create a world in which the poor (and, frankly, middle class) don’t need credit to get by? “I got the shotgun; you got the briefcase. It’s all in the game, though.”

Where, exactly, is the line between predatory and acceptable sales tactics? Is there anything to be said for an industry that, even if motivated by somewhat immoral means, producing a good end? Do we really think there’s no net social or economic benefit to for-profit education?

I know this situation is all sorts of fucked up, but I also know for-profit education improves lives, every day. For example, my sister, who is the shit, spent the better part of a decade getting her master’s degree from an online university, since she was busy, you know, climbing the corporate ladder, taking care of two kids and her husband and her parents and the rest of the community, and running her ranch, to boot. A few years ago, she was promoted to be the engineer in charge of all facilities at one of our national nuclear labs. Would she have gotten this great opportunity if not for her for-profit degree? Who knows? It certainly didn’t hurt.

That’s the beauty of the for-profit college: it gives everybody a chance, regardless of how much you’ve fucked up in the past. A lot of people do end up screwed, but a lot end up in a better place, too. What’s more classic than capitalism rising to fulfill The Motherfucking American Dream?

*Now, 55% may be deceptively low, because many stay on an extra quarter or so to finish up things here and there, and we basically assume, going in, that engineers and pre-meds are going to take five years. But that, of course, begs the question: why should they need to take longer? It’s not as if our private school counterparts (USC, Stanford, BU, whatever) automatically expect their hard scientists to take longer, too.

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