Monday, March 17, 2014

For Profit Education: My Story (Part 2)

My Story, Part 1

Here's a quick summary of what happened in Part 1: I was working as a library assistant at a for profit education institution and was relatively happy.  I liked my boss, I liked what I was doing, and I felt like everyone there cared about the students.  My best friend was the administrative assistant and we got to hang out at work.  It seemed perfect and I was blissfully ignoring all negative mentions of for profit education in the media.

About two and a half years after I started, several turning points occurred.   We had our first graduation, which meant our first opportunity to see the students we'd been working with succeed.  Around the same time, my boss left.  When she left, we were left with only three full time academic staff members, including myself.  I took over a large portion of her duties while we looked for someone to fill her position.  I had also started work on my MLS, anticipating the promotion and raise I had been led to believe I would receive.

At this point, I really started to notice our employee turnover rates.  The idealistic people I had started out working with, the ones who cared about the students and got involved in their lives, had all moved on to other jobs.  Within two years of opening, almost every single full time staff member had been replaced at least once.  We had a new director, new student reps, two new registrars, and a rotating pool of adjunct instructors.

Sometime after that first graduation I began to see that we weren't really helping students.  Our graduates weren't getting jobs.  And their credits didn't transfer to other schools.  Their only options were to take jobs they could have gotten with high school degrees or to take out more loans and come back for more classes.  A few started over at community college, but by that point they were in enormous debt.

Participating in the accreditation process and taking over some of the dean's duties also opened my eyes to the way the school operated.  We had a new director who had a background in business, not education.  He toed the company line and pushed numbers, numbers, numbers.  Meet your numbers or your job is on the line (I'll talk more about numbers later).  Instead of caring about the students, faculty and staff had to put their own performance (and by performance I mean meeting corporate standards) over challenging students and providing quality education.

I was in a unique position because I was one of the employees who had been with the company longest.  I had been involved in the accreditation process from the beginning, and I knew company policy as well as anyone there.  Honestly, in some aspects, I knew company policy better than our director and was frequently called in to advise on policy and documentation.  But I was also in one of the very few job positions that was not measured in statistics.  I had no numbers to meet, which is probably one reason I lasted as long as I did.

But it wasn't just the way corporate policies tied our hands in providing an education.  The students we were recruiting were also a problem.  Again, I'll go into this more when I talk about why for profit education hurts its own employees, but we would enroll literally anyone (anyone who could get a loan, that is).  Because of that, I learned how to work with the lowest common denominator.

In some ways, this made me a better person.  I feel like I learned lessons about generational poverty and the poor that changed me for the better.  I became less judgmental and more sympathetic.  I learned why college isn't an option for some people and saw how the for profit sector had potential to help them.  And I felt like I had the opportunity to be Christ to people who had no one else in their lives to love them or listen to them.

But I also saw scary stuff happen.  We enrolled students with very serious drug and alcohol problems (I had to call an ambulance to remove a student who overdosed and passed out in the library), we enrolled students with serious criminal histories (including convicted sex offenders), and we enrolled students who regularly committed crimes (the Busted paper was frequently passed around the office with our students' mug shots circled).

I broke up fights between grown men in the parking lot, I called the police on more than one occasion, I petitioned for security (that we never got), and I was physically and sexually threatened on more than one occasion.  I bought mace for my key chain and found students I trusted to walk me out to my car at night.  Despite the fact that we had a car jacking in our parking lot, and despite our frequent requests for security, we were often campus without management until anywhere between 9 and 11 PM.  The female managers were required to close regularly, which meant being alone at the school even later, sometimes with students.  Every female employee I knew had experiences where she was afraid for her safety while in the building.

All of these changes took place very slowly.  It wasn't like one day a student walked in and busted out with a rape threat.  Or like my boss brought in a memo that said "Start lying to students now."  It was like being the frog in a slowly heating pot of water.  At some point it became normal to me to have students cursing at me.  One day, after a particularly difficult student event, a student thanked me and I was so grateful that I cried.  And it seemed normal.

Policies started changing too, as for profit schools came under legal scrutiny, but it happened slowly and without much information being given to employees.  The most important thing for us to do was keep students happy.  That meant overlooking things like blatant disrespect, rude comments about women, cursing, etc.  Any attempt to enforce any kind of discipline would result in being undermined by the higher-ups.  I had friends at work, but everyone, and I mean everyone, hated their job as much as I did.  I can't name a single person who had worked there for over six months who expressed happiness in their career or support for the company as a whole.

So what happened to make me quit?  First my best friend joined the military.  Then our second dean left.  She was one of the few people left who supported the academic staff.  She truly cared about students and encouraged us to do the same.  Our next dean came with the same corporate mindset that I'd grown to hate and an utter lack of respect for his employees. I knew my time was up.  I was tired of feeling guilty for the way we treated students, embarrassed to say where I worked, and afraid of the situations I was placed in.

Over the course of my last year at the school, a lot of things started to fall into place to make me realize just how bad things had become.  I realized that since working there I had gained 80 pounds.  In an attempt to render myself as invisible to the male student eye as possible I had stopped wearing nice clothes or makeup. I hated every aspect of the job.  I had no energy and no drive.  I felt like everything I did was meaningless, unappreciated, and unrecognized.  In the event that I'd accomplish something of significance (which was increasingly rare), a superior would take credit for it.  I had no respect for the company or for the administrative side of the school as a whole. Even my doctor told me I needed to make a change for the sake of my health.

But the thing that was most significant was how I started to feel about the students.  I had stayed with the job for five years and told myself I was doing it because there were students there who needed me.  Students who didn't have a single person in their life who they felt cared about them other than me.  In my mind it justified my working there when I didn't like what the corporation was doing and when I saw what I felt were blatantly unethical practices.  But by the fifth year there, I had grown to hate our students.   I didn't care about them, in fact I disliked almost every single student I had (I see this as a sign of burnout, not a sign of every student being unlikable).

So I turned in my notice and freaked out.  I was terrified of the unknown and afraid that with a for profit school on my resume I would never find another job in "real" education.  It turns out, God had a plan for me.  I got a job very quickly at a community college.  It's not Harvard, but it's a "real" school.  Our students get "real" degrees.  We can legally call ourselves a college.  We are regionally accredited.  Our students go out with degrees and credits that get them jobs and help them transfer to bigger schools.

And the students!  I haven't been cursed at, propositioned, offered drugs, or even spoken rudely to.  On a daily basis I have students thank me for my help, ask intelligent questions, and respect my authority.  It's been eight months or so, but I feel like I'm just now fully coming to terms with how very unhealthy things were at the for profit school.

But this is just my story.  I want to tell you in objective terms, without relying on anecdotes (although you know I'll throw in a few) about why for profit education hurts students, hurts its own employees, and hurts education as a whole.  So those will be my next three posts in the series.  Hope you'll stick around for the rest!

Also, I'd love to answer any specific questions any of you have about for profit schools, their practices, or my experience specifically.  If anyone has any questions, leave them in the comments and if I get enough I'll do a Q&A post as part of the series.

Keep Reading:
How For Profit Schools Hurt Students, Part 1
How For Profit Schools Hurt Students, Part 2
How For Profit Schools Hurt Their Own Employees, Part 1


  1. Wow Julie! I didn't know any of this and appreciate your telling the world! I'm so happy you are happy with your new job at the community college. Keep your words coming! Love, Aunt Lyn