Survivors Guilt: My Time at a For-Profit College

Disclaimer: All of this is 100% true. I have decided not to state the name of any of the schools. It’s not because I care about getting in trouble or offending anyone.  There are good people that work at For-Profit schools. I have friends that work at them and I don’t want to embarrass any of them.  This is an attack on For-Profit schools in general, not at a particular school. 

It was my first day back.  Back at the For-Profit College.  I told myself, two years ago and a full stomach, that I wouldn’t work there again.  But teaching part-time at the Community College ended in May. I wouldn’t get new classes until the end of August, so you might as well say September.  Almost three months and some change of no solid pay checks.  When you work as an Adjunct Professor, you are always dreading the summer.  You stock your savings as best you can, but there is always that tooth that flares up, or the wedding you forgot about, or the dish washer finally goes out.  So, there I was. My first student was fifteen minutes late.

“Hello,” I said, standing.  “How’s it going?”

“Fine,” the boy said.  “Sorry I’m late.”

“That’s ok,” I said.  Of course it wasn’t Ok.  If this was the Community College, I would have told him to turn around and go back to the registrar.  But at the For-profit, the rules were applied softly.  These were gentle flowers, supposedly.  And they all knew the deal.  They passed this class as soon as they were signed up for it.

“Have a seat,” I said.  He did, fiddling with his cell phone.

“We’ll get started once the others get here,” I said.  But there were only five people enrolled in my class.  It signified the way it worked at the For-profit.  The bottom-level classes were full, packed to the rims.  But the higher level classes, they were light.  The students dropped off, a few at a time.  I asked someone what the graduation rate was and it was close to 20%.  That number was actually better than I thought.

A half hour into the class and two more people showed up.

“Let’s get to know each other a little bit,” I said.  “My name is Jarvis Slacks.  I have a BFA and a MFA in Creative Writing.  And this is Sci-fi/Fantasy, right?  We’ll be going on different stories throughout history and discussing them.”

“Why do we have to take this?” The young man said.

“You didn’t sign up for it?” I asked.

“They signed us up for it,” the female student said, older, way older.  She could easily be my mother.

“Well,” I said.  “Fostering creativity is important.  I know you guys are getting degrees in Information Technology.  IT? Right?  But, you’ll be in situations where you’ll have to be creative.  This is a good back bone for it.”

“I hate reading,” the young man said, standing up, digging in his pockets.  I would find that he would do this often.  Telling him not to do it would frustrate both of us.  So I said nothing.

“What’s the last book you guys read?” I asked.  Silence.

“What’s the last thing you guys read, period?” I asked.

“Does Text messages count?” the young man asked me, straight faced, as if he was asking the best question all day.

For-Profit colleges are just what they sound like. They are colleges built to make a profit. They just need the students.  Once the students apply for financial aid and loans, that’s the profit.  And, once the student is in the door, the For-Profit colleges are basically done.

I think it’s good to address “Colleges” and “For-Profite Colleges” and what the difference is.  Where Public colleges and universities receive help from Federal, State and Local governments, For-Profits schools do not. Thus, For-Profits are not answerable to anyone. And, unlike Private universities, For-Profit colleges don’t invest in the massive infrastructure needed to give students an education.  Getting a degree from Duke is like eating at a Five-star restaurant.  Getting a degree at a For-Profit school is like getting a Big-Mac.  But that doesn’t make For-Profit schools any less expensive.

The students pay for the simulation of an education, not an actually one.  But, to them, there is no difference.  This situation, the falseness of For-Profit colleges, puts the instructors in a bad situation . When you want to be a college instructor, there are years that you have to do things you would rather not do.  But, For-Profit schools are the worst of the trials, the worst of the inflictions.  The students at For-Profit colleges are not receiving a proper education.  You know that.  As an instructor there, you are making matters worse, not better.

People that get degrees at For-Profit schools will not find a good job.  They will gather debt that they probably won’t be able to pay back. For-Profit schools prey on those they are at their wits end, those that want an education.  For-Profit schools have assessment tests that are weak, allowing pretty much anyone to walk into their doors. Once the student is in, the hallucination of going to college begins, with the ultimate goal to get the students out of rooms to make room for more.

The first time I taught there was in the summer of 2009.  I had a good job as an adjunct teacher at a great Community College.  The students had some issues, of course.  Community Colleges have students with a variety of learning issues.  I was new in the teaching workforce and I was eager to save every student that walked by me.  I knew I could be the hero that my instructors were for me.  I went to community college.  I knew what it was like.  They needed the help and I needed to help them.  I was a firm believer that every student could be saved.

I took the job at the For-Profit to bridge the summer gap.  I was excited.  A new group of students eager to learn and eager to experience.  My first day, I had twenty five people talking as loud as they possible could, sitting on desks, talking on cellphones.  One of them, in the back row, was barely awake.  I picked up the English Composition text they were assigned and slammed it down on the desk, hard.  They all stopped.

“I’m starting class,” I told them in a calm voice.

I was idealistic enough to think that the universe was teaching me a lesson.  This is what I need!  Tough students that I have to get tough with!  But, over the term, I learned that these students weren’t the students I was used to.  Most students have a basic understanding that the bulk of the learning process relays on them actually trying to learn.  These students at the For-Profit college had come to expect that learning came from, well, being there.  Of the twenty five students I had, five of them had recently been to jail, a few were recovering drug addicts.  Some were on probation.  A few were under eighteen years old and had babies.  One essay a student wrote was barely seventh grade writing.  None of them could sit still for more than five minutes. The only time I got their attention, 100%, was when I read to them.  I would read the essays I assigned out loud, and they would ping in just like ten year olds.  This was a group that had been abused, neglected, and toss aside.  And they told that they were in college.

I went to the coordinator office, hoping to get some advice, some insight.  Something.  One of the coordinators heard me complaining about how the students weren’t reading, weren’t prepared, never did their work and were generally disenfranchised.  The coordinator looked at me and spoke as softly as my mother once did, telling me I couldn’t have a Halloween costume because they were too expensive.

“If you stop expecting so much, you’ll be less disappointed,” he said.  And then he grabbed his coffee mug and left the room.

I thought I could still get to these students.  God help me I tried. I spent extra hours on my lesson plans, making sure they understood what I was saying.  I gave them more current examples, more interesting essays to read.  I read over their shoulders and asked them questions and asked them to ask me questions.  I did try. But when their final-five page research essays were turned in, the truth rained down on me. I was in the adjunct workspace, grading papers, marking them up and putting grades down.  Then stopping, pen in my hand, my eyebrows down and my jaw tight as rocks.

“This is plagiarized,” I said.  The adjunct workspace was full of instructors grading, drinking coffee.  I’m pretty sure some of them were drinking something stronger than coffee.

“What?” another English adjunct asked.

“This paper is plagiarized,” I said.  I typed the first few sentences into Google and there the sentences were, right in front of me.  It was a word-for-word plagiarized essay.  And so was the next essay.  And the next essay.  And the next essay.  Of the twenty-five students, fifteen of them were guaranteed plagiarized.  Five of them were plagiarized, I know, but I didn’t have proof.  The other five students didn’t even bother to turn anything in.

“Well,” the adjunct said.  “You have to tell them to re-do it.”

“I’m failing them,” I said.  “Every single one of them is failing.”

“They won’t let you do that,” she said.

“Who won’t?”

“They won’t,” she said, pointing to the coordinator’s office.  “They’ll make you keep giving them chances until they finally pass.”

I shook my head.

“They are going to pass,” she said to me.

I leaned back in my chair with my hands over my face.

“I know,” she said.

Don’t get confused.  I had slacker students at the Community College, too. Students who didn’t show up, didn’t do any of the work, didn’t study. But I failed those students.  There were no “Re-dos.”  At the For-Profit school, I witnessed “Counselors” asking instructors, politely, to re-consider failing students.  That conversation should never happen.  How is an instructor supposed to motivate students to achieve when everyone else, the entire institution, gives them no reason too? When achieving and not achieving produces the exact same result?  Why work when you know you don’t have to? That energy flows from the students to the instructors, with instructors barely lifting a finger to type a new lesson plan, instructors not showing up for class, instructors giving assignments that a five year old could do.

There are two reasons why I wanted to be a college instructor.  One, I loved teaching.  And second, I liked having a job that made the world better.  Teaching, if you do it right, doesn’t harm the world. Educating people actually makes the world a better place to live.  It can be a pure positive experience and something that you can make money at that doesn’t destroy your soul.  Sitting on the train, heading home on my long commute, I couldn’t say that about teaching at the For-Profit college.

Now, in 2011, I was facing the same situation again.  But I had no delusions this time.

“We’ll be taking notes today,” I said as I walked into the room, laying my satchel down.  Two of the students were there.  The others would trickle in or they wouldn’t.

“We’ll need paper?” one of the students asked.

“Of course you’ll need paper,” I said as carefully as I could.  I had an edge in my voice. I had this job at the For-Profit college but I also worked my weekends at a Book Store.  Forcing the ends to meet.  Working part time was starting to wear me down. I didn’t want to take it out on the students, but it was bound to happen.

“I’ll be right back,” the student said, walking out the class.  He returned a minute later, close to twenty sheets of paper in his hand.

“Where did you get that?” I asked him.

“The copy machine down the hall,” he said.

“You’re stealing,” the other student said.

“Eighty Thousand dollars and I’m stealing?” he said back? “I’m stealing?”

“Wait,” I said.  “What eighty thousand dollars?”

He preceded to tell me that, so far, he’d spent close to eighty thousand dollars for his degree.  He wouldn’t graduate for another year. They were all loans.  Loans over and over and over.  To put it in context, my entire education, from community college to getting my masters was close to fifty thousand.

“It’s wrong,” I told a friend.  We were having coffee at a coffee shop in DC. He was a full-time Professor, with all the comforts of home. He shrugged his shoulders.

“You don’t care that these places are taking advantage of these children?” I asked.

“You are cashing the pay checks,” he said to me.  “You’re not innocent.”

“I’m broke.”

“You can’t complain about where the bread comes from if you eat the bread.  You know that.”

“I don’t know that,” I said.  But, later, laying in bed alone, I knew he was telling the truth.

The next day, the For-Profit kids and I were talking about a science fiction story called, “When Things Changed.”  It is about a world of women that never knew men, when suddenly a rocket-ship lands full of men on the women world and the men plot to take it over.  It’s a brilliant story.

“This story is stupid,” one of the kids said.

“That’s original,” I said.  “This story is stupid.  That’s deep. You are adding to the conversation.”

“What’s that mean?”

“I was being sarcastic,” I said.  “And I mean that, instead of trying to understand it, you are dismissing it. You’re not looking for understanding.  You automatically look at it, think you know it, make a rash judgement, then toss it aside.”

“That’s not what I was doing,” he said, folding his arms.

No, I thought.  That’s what I was doing.

“This story,” I said, talking with my hands.  “This story tries to get you to open your mind to the possibility of a world.  It’s like, if you open your mind to possibilities, if you keep yourself open to new things, then maybe the world makes a little more sense.  Do you follow?  Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean it is awful, or distasteful, or not worth your time.  It just means you have to work a little harder.  Does that make sense?”

They all nodded their heads, barely.  One of them raised their hands.

“Yes?”

“Are we going to get out early today?”

Someone once told me that a teacher can’t take it personally.  A teacher has to save the ones that want to save themselves and the ones that can’t be saved, the teacher should just ignore. Push to the side.  I’ve never believed that, even though I’ve tried.  Not taking the failures personally means that teaching is just a job. You clock in, do what you do, clock out and go home.  That’s not how teaching is, even if you want it to be that way.  Teaching is taking bits of your soul and giving it to each and every student.  When the students do well, when they understand what you want them to do and when they get the assignments, see the potential of themselves, then you get that piece of your soul back.  But when you constantly give a piece of your soul, and you don’t get it back, what then?  You lose yourself. You become a soulless automaton, bouncing from class room to class room, teaching in a monotone voice, allowing the students to slide by because it doesn’t matter if they learn anything or not. You become less of a human being.  And the students suffer because of it.

The last day of class, I gave a final exam. Of the five students, two came.  I read their exams and I was actually surprised.  They got something out of the class.  Not much.  They might be able to talk about why fairy tales have no plot, or why science fiction is so focused on moral lessons.  Walking to the train on my way home, I had to stop, sit down at a bench and I just cried for a solid minute.  I never cry.  I was tired.  I was depressed.  This was not what I wanted for my life.  Or theirs.

I still felt tainted by my experiences.  If one institution is flawed, isn’t all of them?  Part of me wanted to go back to the For-Profit college, to make a real difference, to make my classes the one place for those students to gain real knowledge.  Am I wrong for leaving them?  Turning my back?  Isn’t that what has been destroying these kids? People consistently turning their backs?  I’m probably wrong to feel guilt, but I do. Students at For-Profit colleges are being taken advantage of.  I was briefly apart of that system.  And I can’t forgive myself for that.

For more information, please read these articles:

Mitt Romney’s (slight) connection with For-Profit Colleges

A Frontline video on the problem. 

A Forbes article on For-Profit Colleges by Senator Tom Harkin 

An article about For-Profit Colleges and the African-American Community

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9 thoughts on “Survivors Guilt: My Time at a For-Profit College

  1. This sounds a lot like teaching middle school in a high income district. Grade inflation is huge. People with money usually earned good grades in school- their kids MUST get good grades… and the principal and department head will remind you of that fact all the time. The first time i got a plagiarized assignment I tried to give a zero. It was plagiarized word for word. The big clue was that the kid printed out the paper and it was written in British English. Instead of correcting the British spelling in one of the headings he reprinted the word, cut it out, and pasted it over the original. The parents flipped to the administration and I was told that he could rewrite the assignment. At least 1 in 4 of the assignments i receive are at least partially plagiarized. I have also had a kid rewrite a plagiarized assignment only to pass in a plagiarized rewrite.
    At the beginning of the year we were told not to use sarcasm because the kids won’t understand- they are 13. If they don’t know what sarcasm is by now I see it as my job to teach them so they don’t end up looking like an idiot in front of their future professors.
    At least they have time to improve when I see them.

  2. This is a really great article, Jarvis. I was riveted. Still, I’m not quite sure which schools are for-profit and how you make that distinction. Can you clarify?

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