Wednesday, March 19, 2014

How For Profit Schools Hurt Students

My Story, Part One
My Story, Part Two.

My next few posts on the subject are going to focus on how the industry hurts students, its own employees, and higher education as a whole.  These are all based on my personal experiences, as well as the things I saw happen and the information I was given during my five years in the industry.  I'm not going to use the name of my specific school, or the names of any past or current employees or students.  I'm also going to do my best not to use information pertaining to students' personal lives and focus only on what I saw happening in the administration and operation of the school itself.  These are based on the experiences I had at a particular campus of a particular school and in conjunction with the corporation itself, so they aren't necessarily universal (although current news reports and studies suggest many are).

For the purposes of context and just in case you didn't know: when I say for profit education, I am referring to the sector of higher education that is made up of schools that are managed and operated by private corporations for the purpose of making money.  Some examples of for profit colleges include: University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, ITT Technical Institute, DeVry University, Virginia College, and Webster University.

I think best in lists, and I think that will be the easiest way for blog readers to take in the information.  It will also keep me from getting carried away and posting blocks of text.  Here we go:

Students aren't provided with a quality education.  
There are eleventy billion reasons for this, but I'll try to highlight the most significant.

1) The school's top priority is meeting accreditation standards in order to keep the doors open.  Close behind is the goal of keeping students in seats in order to make money.  Keeping a student enrolled is of utmost importance in meeting both of these goals.  

At the school where I worked, one of the standards a teacher had to meet in order to stay employed was a minimum percentage of student success, determined by students who passed divided by students who enrolled in the course.  If you failed enough students, you lost your job.  Period.  

Let's say you're given a small class of 6 students.  One student never shows up to class, which puts you at an automatic 83% success rate, even before papers are graded.  If another student drops the class at any point during the semester, you're down to 67% success rate.  In order to make your numbers, every other student in that class must pass. If your numbers are too low two quarters in a row, your job is on the line.  So while no one may explicitly say "pass students who don't deserve it", you will be called in to meet with your superiors and they will tell you to do what it takes to get your numbers up.  

The result is that students pass classes whether or not they've mastered the material.  And they know it.  I overheard one student telling another that he had turned in his end of semester paper, worth the majority of his grade, and that the last page wasn't even words, he just typed gibberish.  He was given a 90.  He was telling the next student not to bother doing the work because he'd be passed anyway.  

2) Standards fell to meet the lowest common denominator.  For the first four years, we had a very, very simplistic admissions test (one question asked students to name the fourth month of the year).  During my last year, we did away with any admission requirements other than a GED or high school diploma.  Many of our students couldn't read or write above an elementary school level.  We had some who were functionally illiterate.  All of them were passed along, including in composition courses, with little to no improvement.  The school provided no remedial courses to assist those who couldn't keep up.  They could ask for tutoring assistance, often provided by the course instructor, but were passed along regardless of their mastery of the subject matter.

3) The lowest common denominator approach limited students who were capable of handling the course material.  Enrolling in courses as the school where I worked wasn't like enrolling at a typical college.  You were assigned the courses you were required to take in a specific order for your entire time at the school.  You had no choice in what you were assigned and everyone in the same program took the exact same courses.  While this was a good way to streamline the program for students who needed their degrees quickly and who had outside commitments, it also meant that there was little to no room for deviation from the plan.  

Students who knew how to use computers were still required to sit in (and pay for) a course in basic computer operation.  Also, the pre-determined course schedule put even more pressure on instructors to pass students.  If a student failed a course, he or she might have to wait one or more quarters for that course to be offered again, which meant one or more quarters we weren't getting paid.

4)  Graduation numbers were just as important as "student success" numbers.  If we weren't graduating an appropriate amount of students in each program compared to the number of students enrolled, we could lose our accreditation for that program.  It provided administration with quite a bit of motivation to help teachers "understand" the importance of giving students in higher level classes a passing grade.

Please feel free to leave any feedback or questions you have.  I want to tailor the series to appeal to my readership, so if I'm going into too much detail, let me know!

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

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