For-profit colleges have been cropping up in the news recently. Investigations are being conducted, the 2011 GAO report (United States Government Accountability Office) has been released, and class action law suits are popping up all over the place. The findings in the reports are unsettling, and taxpayers are catching on. Meanwhile, slick lobbyists utilize the abundant profits that these schools are making to create insidious loopholes in the system which prevent any significant regulations from occurring. Republicans present to committees, calling the reports biased and twisted; they use sloppy rhetoric to take the focus off of their predatory business tactics, trying to shift the lens to community colleges and their failures.
Something is missing from the news and the reports. While the reports do offer insight into high tuition costs, bunk degrees, and substandard instruction, they do not shed insight into the student populations that these schools seek out and “serve.” From an outsider’s perspective, it’s easy to say the onus is on the student. These are adults, after-all, and they should have done the research before taking out loans and attending college. Fair enough, but when considering the schools’ advanced marketing strategies and deep pockets, it is wise to take a careful look at the bigger picture before casting such judgment.
The intentions of this piece are not to employ any sort of rhetorical savvy, research or data to be debated or counter-researched. This is a raw. This is where nearly 30% of student loan funding goes towards.
“Wait a minute – you mean I can take out loans without having good credit? I’ve always wanted to go to college, anyway. Being in prison all those years has made me realize that. All I gotta do is show up to class, do a little homework, and I can become a pharmacist! Ha, who woulda ever thought that I’d end up on the legal side of drugs. The financial aid advisor said the extra money could help me pay rent for my own place. My own place! Maybe this is what I need to get my babies out of foster care. The commercial on TV was right; college is going to turn my life around!”
Fast forward. It’s the first day of school. This very student comes to class having been groomed by financial aid advisers, admissions counselors, and student services specialists. Adviser. Counselor. Specialist. Reverse euphemisms, if you ask me. This particular class is English; remedial English, but still a college level English class. I ask students to produce writing samples. Show me what they got. We talk about the term ‘diagnostic’ and what that means. They get it. They write. I ask them to go home and type their handwritten pieces and bring them back to class to turn in on Wednesday.
Wednesday comes and a handful of the students have a typed out assignment. Remember—this assignment was to write on anything; I just want to see what they’ve got.
“enlisch home work
to a kid
Fire saftey week is to explain explain to kids why it is not safe four kids to play with fire why it is not safe is cause you could strat a fire in your house and burn it down if the fire dept does not make it in time>
As a fire fighter i have i have seen cases in which. WE have not be able to say someones house cause of the kids playing with fire . It have also seen it kill a kid that was playing with fire as wall.
to a aduilt
We as fire fighters can exice enfough about how dangers it is to keep all fire poctoduces away from kids as i talk to panerts all the time telling the to from young kids that fire is dangers to let kids play with it can kill and burn down. I have seen a house burn down due to a kid haveing a lighter playing with it.”
My head and heart sink. I become overwhelmed with the thing that is my job. My brain immediately realizes that this task is about unlearning, undoing, recreating, starting from scratch; only after that could I teach the course objectives. This guy needs to take the only remedial class we offer at least three times.
Then I recall the cost of tuition. This class costs nearly $1200.00, and he’s taking out loans to pay for it; he will have to pay it all back.
This guy is homeless, and he shared with the entire class that he and his biological mother had slept together. I often caught him staring me up and down, devouring me like I was a bag of sugar coated candy; I was disgusted knowing what he imagined. He would wear the same clothes for weeks, and rub his armpit rash on the backs of chairs. Close to 300 pounds and missing most of his front teeth. After eating two bags of candy, he would test his blood sugar levels in class – all before 10 a.m. He forced his stepmother, also in the class, to carry his bags, do his homework. She’s roughly 24 years old and has serious cognitive issues. He’s 35 and loudly calls her “mom”. She is also married to his 64 year old father, who would later end up being in my class.
There’s no teaching this scumbag– this thing that crawled out of the swamp to feed on me for ten weeks.
I try to teach him how to use Microsoft Word. He feigns interest and keeps eating — handful after handful of candy. I ask him to set the margins. He tells me that he’s a firefighter and has to take his phone calls in case of an emergency. He smells so bad that I gag. It’s everything I can do to not throw up in my mouth.
My boss should know about this.
“I can’t teach this student. He also upsets the class; some students won’t come to class because they can’t handle his presence.”
A shark with an eighties mullet and glasses looks me dead in the eye:
“You’re a teacher. It’s your job to teach him.”
I am a teacher. I am a failed teacher. Not only do I feel incapable of teaching him how to spell, I don’t care. I just want him to disappear, vanish, go back to the streets. I don’t ever want to see him again. He disgusts me. And every time he looks at me I want to scrape a layer of my skin off.
He didn’t finish out the term. After the school bought him clothes, after instructors stopped giving him free tobacco, and after he received his financial aid reimbursement, he slithered back to the pond. He ended up with $600.00 cash after paying close to $4300.00 in tuition. $600 is a lot of money to me, let alone to a homeless guy. And that additional $4300.00 — $4900 total, came from federal student loans. I’m pretty sure he’s got no concept of paying that back, but that’s just me. Who knows — maybe while the admissions officer dazzled him with the promise of changing his life and getting an amazing job, there was a brief moment of hope for him.
Maybe I’m a crap instructor; it’s easy enough to say. After all, I didn’t want him in my class. I didn’t care to teach him. But the question I ask myself, over and over again: Should he have been there in the first place? There are numerous students for whom this question holds true.
I’ve taught at many different levels; I taught in China for a few months, went through an MAT program and did my student teaching at the middle/high school levels; but I’ve spent most of my time teaching at the community college level. One of the most eye-opening and unsettling experiences I had was working at a private for-profit college for two years. Sadly, those schools are the only ones hiring full-time. Their economic growth is genius. Schools like this have learned to exploit the billions of federal dollars in loans that nearly everyone is entitled to. They have learned, to a science, how to market to our nation’s most volatile and vulnerable citizens, and they pocket millions. The federal funds that they receive are guaranteed. There are no risks involved. Students’ only requirements are to be economically disadvantaged, receive a 50/100 score on a reading entrance test, have no outstanding debt with previous student loans, and those funds will pour in.
I’ve had countless students with writing scores under 20/100. But more than that, I hear their stories. I’m an English teacher. I hear their stories, I know full well they are being duped, and my heart breaks in some cases when I have no choice but to fail them. I fail them only to have them back in class the very next term, knowing there is nothing I can do for them. Knowing that they will take out another loan for $1200.00 to fail English 10 again.
I’m not a social worker, or am I? I often told myself that the best thing I could do for many of these students was to teach them critical thinking skills, to provide tough love, to get them off the streets or drugs. In some cases, I even tried to persuade students to drop out of school and get their lives and grammar in order at a fair price. There was one guy in particular; he was meant for stand up comedy. He was good at it. Hell, I’d pay to watch him perform. He really thought, though, based on what the school told him, that he would end up working in the medical field with felony drug and gun charges.
Another student, in her mid fifties, was born with epilepsy. She eventually married a man who beat her so severely she lost all of her top front teeth, she had to have massive brain surgery, and she now suffers from short term memory loss. She struggled with everything, in every class, and after about six hours worth of coaching, she still wasn’t able to even copy and paste text. She wasn’t able to format her work. She couldn’t identify gaping holes in her sentences. She just expected that we would do it for her. And you know what, we did; it was vastly easier. And again, knowing how much her education was costing her, both financially and emotionally, it seemed like the right thing to do. There was and is no way this woman will be able to perform any kind of advanced job duties.
Perhaps the most tragic story, of which there are many, is the story of a woman who was in the first class I taught at the school. She was young, and she was angry. I almost didn’t come back to the job because of her. Anything I said, or asked of the class, was shot down by her. She would cry out of rage. She responded with irrational anger. It was English 10. The class hosts students with varying writing capabilities. Many in those classes have severe learning disabilities; only some students are actually prepared for the class. This student, we’ll call her Amanda, was a good writer, but she was damaged. She had young children, bipolar disorder, and a history of sexual abuse. I quickly learned to, within reason, let her have her own way in terms of assignments. I just kept the course objectives in mind; and being that she was a good writer, it all worked out. She ended up passing most of her classes with As, even though she battled with almost every instructor along the way. One day, she came to me and told me that she had spent the night in jail. Her ex-husband had returned her kids with cigarette burns all over their little bodies. She blamed his girlfriend and lost her temper– rightly so. I can’t imagine what I would do in my right mind.
All I could do was tell her to remove herself from her current life. What else am I supposed to say? And at this point, I’ve become somewhat numb to students’ tales of horror. I had to constantly remind myself that I was a teacher, not a social worker or therapist. And even when I tried, it didn’t work. All I could do was usher them over to student services, where they would offer 1-800 numbers to local halfway houses or other free services for the downtrodden. That’s all they could do; student services consists of former students who are not trained in the fields they work in. These schools are notorious for hiring former students — it helps make the numbers look good. It keeps investors and politicians happy.
Amanda wanted to be a nurse. She was capable, academically; emotionally and mentally there was no way she could handle such a position. Her criminal and mental health records alone would prevent her from attaining such a competitive position. Her life was in shambles, and nothing anyone could do or say could help. She needed something much more than an education; she needed years of therapy.
Shortly after graduating, Amanda committed suicide. I may be going out on a limb here, but having known her, I’d say the realization that she couldn’t get a job after spending two years and roughly $40K to get out of her miserable situation played a factor in her suicide. She really believed she would become a nurse, and she had no idea that her personality and mental health issues would alienate her from working in the professional world.
She used to ask me for advice, complement me on my clothes; and after awhile, she even started to emulate my style. I was flattered, and thought of myself as a reasonable role model for her. I come from a somewhat brambly background myself, but have managed to tailor it to the professional world. I had hoped she could find a similar path– if for nothing more than to be proud of something that she had done for herself.
At one point, they hired a Program Director whose position was to basically govern all of the general education instructors. The English instructors fell into that category. He rubbed me the wrong way from the start. He earned a PhD in Education, and he expected everyone to call him by the title that he had earned. Fair enough, I suppose, but my instincts told me something was off with this guy.
Part of a Program Director’s job is to observe instructors. It happens about once per term, and we are told in advance when it’s going to happen. Then when the time comes, he or she will find a seat in the back, observe, and take notes. Well, not this guy. He walked with me to my first class of the term. I thought we were just chatting, but no; he came in, introduced himself as Dr. Smith, and just stood there at the front of the class. I looked at him with a sort of “What are you doing?” look. He told me to just start teaching. I did. He came to a total of three classes that week. And he did the same thing — he introduced himself as Dr. Smith and just stood at the front of the class as I taught. It seemed very strange to me, as though he was asserting some kind of creepy control rather than observing. Every time he was around me I wanted to sort of peel off a layer of skin.
After a couple of months, everyone employed by the school had to be fingerprinted and have their criminal backgrounds checked. The following Monday, the good Doctor didn’t come back. We were informed that someone else would be taking over his position as PD. Administration was tight lipped about the whole thing, so I decided to do some research. In one simple Google search, I came across a very detailed court case. It turns out he had been sued for molesting girls as an elementary school teacher and fired. And he didn’t stop there. He moved on to the Internet, where he could be free to roam, eventually falling prey to a sting operation; here’s an excerpt from the court case:
“On February 1, 1998, Jane Doe, posing as Lisa, met Smith at a hotel pool area. Smith wanted a hug but Hersey only “halfway” hugged Smith. After they sat down, Smith showed her pictures of himself nude. They engaged in small talk during the next 20 minutes, and Smith told her of his sexual plans. However, Hersey refused Smith’s invitation to accompany him in his truck. He threw a temper tantrum, stomped out of the pool area and walked to his truck. Hersey waited a few minutes and then followed him to his truck. Smith tried to convince her to enter the truck but she refused. Smith then unzipped his pants and began to masturbate. Hersey asked Smith for permission to photograph him and he agreed. After he ejaculated onto his hand, he extended that hand toward Hersey. This encounter resulted in the charges of an attempted lewd act on a minor under the age of 14 years, count 1 (§§ 664, 288, subd. (a)); lewd conduct, count 22 (§ 647, subd. (a)) and indecent exposure, count 23 (§ 314, subd. 1)” (http://caselaw.findlaw.com).
At first I was shocked that his crimes were so extreme in nature. But that was quickly replaced with the shock that HR wasn’t able to even do the slightest amount of research before hiring someone into such an important position. Then I got angry. I imagined bringing my 13 year-old daughter to work BBQs or to work; the very fact that she might even have engaged this deviant, my boss, in conversation pissed me off. Very negative. I imagined what I would have done to him if he were to even look at her. And then I thought about how Amanda must have felt, and how I told her to remove herself from all the scumbags in her life.
I saw the big picture. I was surrounded by some of the most vile people on the planet. This is not one of those triumphant teaching stories. Hilary Swank is not going to play my part in some Hollywood movie. Who could stomach this movie? There are too few happy endings. There are too many unlovable characters. There are too many lovable ones, whose lives are tragic, and for whom college and debt will only further suffering.
The interim boss, who replaced the sexual deviant for the next few months, was already one of the admins whose workload doubled. Even though his only work and education experience is in marketing, he was in charge of students with disabilities, among other things. He managed students’ complaints, managed loads of paperwork, and performed other random duties. I was about to teach a keyboarding class for the first time. It’s a simple enough class to teach. Students just need to log in, follow the prompts, complete the exercises in a certain amount of time, and their scores are all reported in an electronic grade book. It was the first day of class. There was a glitch in the software, and I couldn’t figure out why my computer wouldn’t pull it up for a tutorial. There were students who didn’t yet have passwords. The first day of the term is always very busy, and there are lines everywhere. I went to the admin hall; there were lines. I went to the Learning Resource Center (A room where the computer lab, tutors, and the one wall of books that constitutes a library reside.) Everyone was swamped. I went back to the classroom, tried a few more tricks, and decided it wasn’t worth it. I told the students to come back with passwords on Wednesday, and that I would have the software problem fixed.
This decision was met with rage. Our interim Program Director, the one with the mullet and glasses that I mentioned earlier, came into the faculty workroom and publicly humiliated me. He told me students were there to learn; they were paying for the class; and that I should have interrupted someone to fix the problem. Interruption is never welcomed. I knew better. He yelled at me, in front of peers, that I would never teach a keyboarding class again.
I found out that the medical software on the old computer in that particular classroom conflicted with the keyboarding software. No one told me this previous to teaching in that room.
There was another instance, one when I was being observed by yet another new Program Director, when I allowed my class of ten students to read the chapter from the text outside. It was sunny. This is Portland, OR. This particular class did not do the reading as homework — ever. I thought this was a nice way of making sure they would actually get the reading done. It was a two hour class; we would spend the first hour reading, the second discussing the reading. I was written up for doing this, even though I made the decision based on the most efficient way of achieving the class objectives I could think of. If I thought this was a bad idea, why on earth would I have done it while being observed?
Fast forward a few months. I’m teaching an English 10 evening class. The class consists of six students, two of whom have taken the class twice already. Missy and Blaze. Missy is incredibly loud, demanding, smokes pot in the bathrooms on break, drinks alcohol on school grounds, and never does any work. She once yelled at me and stomped her feet because apparently I didn’t get the memo that she’d be missing class for a beach trip, which should have somehow excused her from homework. Blaze is an agitated black lesbian with tattoos abound, some sprawling up her neck. She just sits in class, glued to text messaging, occasionally laughing at some. Her legs are always crossed, and she’s always kicking one of them; like a nervous twitch, but more of an angry twitch in her case. In a previous class, I had to break up a fight between her and a Fijian man. She came very close to scratching his face off because he expressed his opinion that lesbians are going to hell. She never did anything. I wouldn’t even know what a typed assignment from her might look like.
Then there’s Makia. He’s a very built, very aggressive Hawaiian guy. In the parking lot, he doesn’t wear a shirt; he oils his chest and struts around in his colorful Hawaiian skirt. That part doesn’t bother me. What bothers me, is that he comes into class (when he decides to) and brings nothing. No pencil. No paper. Nothing to indicate he even wants to be in an educational environment. One evening, I had them read an excerpt from “A People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn. A few students were really into it, as they usually are; Zinn validates many of their ideals. Makia feigned reading. He laughed all the way through, as though it was somehow funny. And let me tell you– that particular excerpt was not funny. I asked him if he’d read it. He said yes, and went back to talking with Missy and Blaze. Meanwhile, the other students quietly read.
The other three students wanted to be there, and they needed all the instruction they could get. One woman was older, I’d say mid-thirties. I’m not qualified to diagnose learning disabilities, but as with many of my students, I guessed she had one. She was not able to understand the concept of what makes a complete sentence. Basic spelling was difficult for her, but she worked hard. She improved by the end of the term, so I passed her. Again, I considered the context of the situation. Passing or not passing English 10 would make no difference whatsoever in this woman’s life. And considering how much the class was costing her, I felt that improvement was enough.
The other two students were adequately placed in the class. They did their work, they studied, and they were constantly distracted by the other three. I felt like a crap teacher. I wanted to teach them. I didn’t want to babysit the other students — adult children with adult tempers. And because I want my classes to be enjoyable, I tried to engage the troubled students. But at a certain point, it just became intolerable.
One night, I was nearly an hour into class. We were learning how to write parallel sentences. I know, exciting; but I really do make it entertaining. A lot of crazy stuff can go into a parallel sentence. Makia struts into class. As usual, he comes in with no paper, no pen or pencil, sits down next to Missy and Blaze, and they all start giggling.
I ask Makia why he doesn’t ever bring anything to class. He tells me ‘his people’ don’t learn that way, and that I’m racist. He starts yelling at me about how ignorant I am. He threatens to go and report me to the president of the school. I tell him that’s a good idea; I suggest that he should in fact leave and go do that. Missy starts to laugh. I tell her that she can go with him since she thinks it’s so funny. She calls me a bitch.
My skin is on fire. I excuse myself from the rest of class, tell them to take a break, and go to the Program Director on duty for the night. I tell him to please come and remove the ass hole from my classroom so that others may learn. I also tell him to remove Missy, because she called me a bitch. Needless to say, they were out in the parking lot calling me much worse things than that. I tell the Program Director that there is no way I will accept either of them back in class. They are both failing (again), anyway.
I head back to class to see my three serious students waiting and smiling. The rest of class went swimmingly.
The next day I received an email from the second high in command asking me to come to his office. We’ll call him Carl. We don’t see him very often, so I knew it had to be related to the incident with Makia. I sit down inside his office, and he asks me to tell him what happened. I’m thinking this is a cut and dry situation.
He tells me that not only is Makia coming back to class, but that Makia expects me to apologize to him. I was told that I didn’t have to. Thanks. Oh, and Missy is also coming back to class. She will have to apologize first, which is nice. Even though they came back to class, none of them passed. Both Missy and Blaze have now spent roughly $3600.00 taking and not passing English 10.
Attendance is very important to these schools. Reporting attendance is a SOX requirement, which means that if numbers get too low, investors lose confidence. So it made perfect sense that they would send them back to class.
The worst part, though, is that I was informed that he was very angry with me. Carl told me it was best if I just didn’t ask him to do anything. I was told to “let the class free-write” for two hours. So essentially, I was told not to teach because of this student’s anger. Furthermore, the PD for the Criminal Justice department told me to “Be safe.” I asked him why; I mean, this is a man of few words; in my nearly two years of being there, he barely spoke. He told me to watch my back, because this guy was dangerous.
What I found to be both unsettling and completely illogical, is the fact that I was written up for letting students read from the text book outside of class, only to later be told not to teach an entire class because of a student’s potential threat to my safety.
The next day, while I was out in the parking lot, one of Makia’s friends, another former student who made my skin crawl, called me a cunt. I have pretty thick skin, but something about the harshness of it crimsoned my skin. I felt gross. The same student used to become angry in class, would tell me he could teach me a thing or two in the bed, and never did anything except cause me grief. It made sense that they were friends.
I feel as though Kafka has come back from the grave to make his own Punk’d television show.
At this point, I am completely at odds with my job. I am full-time. I have health insurance. I am a single mum. There are no full-time positions available at community colleges. I thoroughly enjoy teaching. I am good at it. I have a rapport with my students that not many instructors have. I even won an award for my teaching skills my first term at this school. I almost didn’t come back after my first night teaching there, but I decided instead to give it my all.
I had students write their own children’s stories. Some of them were amazing — truly. Some of them were anything but tales for young minds; in fact, some of their stories put permanent dark marks in my mind. One student, Maria, wrote a story about one of her friends from Brazil. Her written English was nearly impossible to read, but she wrote her story. Seven pages worth. She worked diligently to make the story clear, and rightly so. Her story is about a girl who wanted to be a model. She lived in Brazil at the time, and met a wealthy older man who showed her a life that she’d never seen. He bought her flowers, took her out to fancy restaurants, bought her nice clothes — you know the story.
After some time, this gentleman convinced her that she should get breast implants. He told her if she did, he could get her modeling jobs in Mexico. The girl excitedly agreed. So the plan was to fly her to Mexico, where she have the surgery. She would recover and start modeling. She flew to Mexico, underwent the surgery, recovered with other girls in her same position, and then she became ill. The doctors there told her she needed to go back to Brazil for surgery there. She agreed. She started to sense that things were not right, so she called her family and friends back in Brazil and flew home. The details in some parts of the story are hard to make out, as her writing, after hours of revisions, is very broken and also written in the voice of a child.
One she returned home, her family brought her to a doctor where they discovered that she had an infection in one breast. They immediately opened her up only to discover that she had little sacks of cocaine, and not saline, in her breasts.
I had never even conceived of such a thing. I asked her if this was all true, and reassured her that it didn’t matter — I just wanted to know. She was very adamant that it was true. She is a sweet girl, and a hard worker. And she told me she was so happy that she was able to finally write about this experience, because she always wanted to but never had a reason to. She was very earnest, and her eagerness to write the story as well as she could indicated to me that she was in fact telling the truth.
Another student, William, who had an eye patch, tracheotomy scar, tattoos everywhere and wreaked of marijuana also wrote a story. He wrote by hand seven pages, which he said was the most he’s ever written in his life. When the time came for them to read their stories aloud, William came to the front of the room. He was trembling. He also had an old newspaper article that he set down on the desk in front of him. He started reading. His voice shaking, his hands barely able to hold on to the crumpled up paper he was reading from.
I couldn’t hold back the tears. The class was dead silent. And William, for the first time in his sad life, was reading his story in front of someone other than a judge or social worker. He had to hold back his pain. I could see him as a little boy. I almost wanted him to cry, to let go of all of that anger and grief in an environment of complete safety.
I can’t believe I have to grade this.
He told the story of his life. His father was a drunk, an abusive drunk who beat him, his brother, and his mother regularly. His father used to force them to watch as he raped their mother. He was in and out of jail, and he left them with little to no money.
One day, after a drinking binge, William’s father came home; he locked William, his little brother and mother in the car, and set it on fire. That was what the newspaper article on the desk was proof of. The family escaped, and the father was sent to jail for a long time. But then the mother started dating all kinds of sordid characters, leaving William to nothing but fits of rage and crime. He spent most of his adolescent life in detention centers, in jail, on drugs, and in fights.
Then he met a nice girl. He settled a bit, and worked as a welder. He would weld her little love trinkets, and she would bring him love letters to work. They got married and had a baby girl. One night, when the baby was about eleven months old, they were on a road trip with William’s brother-in-law, who was driving. He fell asleep at the wheel. The car crashed. William woke up four months later in a hospital bed missing one eye, one wife, and one daughter. His back was broken and he had suffered severe trauma to his brain.
And here he was, at this school, in my class.
I went out of my way to help William; I even defended him once, when a male math instructor publicly poked fun at him for always smelling like marijuana, which set him off into a rage. The school wanted to give him the boot, but I spoke with everyone I could to prevent that from happening. My argument was that we accepted him into the school; we promised him that we had all the services necessary to help him through, despite his obvious issues. We needed to hire specialists who can help people with severe brain trauma, disabilities, emotional problems — because those are the students that make up a significant part of our population. These are the people we spend millions of dollars marketing to. And these students are spending almost four times as much on tuition than they would at any other community college, who offer the same programs and have the services they so desperately need.
Unfortunately, many of these students wouldn’t be able to pass the tests to even be able to get into a community college.
They allowed William to stay, and he stayed right up until his last term. He was never able to pass the math classes, and he is prone to anger and violence. Understandably so. He’s now in jail again, without a degree, and $40K in debt. I so badly wanted to see him happy and stable. To even write about him, and to even think that I participated in these expensive promises that he had no hope of achieving, makes me feel sick to my stomach.
I knew, when I had him again for English 151, that there was no way he’d be able to write at such a level. I had to remove myself emotionally. I could see him acting out, self sabotage abound; he didn’t feel like he deserved happiness. And he didn’t have the academic ability to make it through. So back to jail, where he feels safe.
At the end of the English 10 class, I had their stories bound into paperback books. I went out and found a printing press to do it free of charge. A friend put in hours formatting the stories into Adobe. The school agreed to pay for the printing, which was $100.00; though they never did pay for it. The books looked great. The students were so proud of their work. They performed a reading at the school, and something about reading their stories out of a real book made them feel very confident. Amanda’s story is in the collection.
One night, it was the first night of another English 10 class, I asked students to write their diagnostic on what they make of the human condition. I explained to them the basics of what that meant. What makes us different from animals? Why do we experience emotion the way we do? We had a nice class discussion before they set to writing. One student, a woman about 23 years old, started to cry. This was after she rolled her eyes repeatedly, at everything I said. She also banged her head against the desk at one point. She became very upset with me. She asked why we had to learn about this in a writing class. She said it was stupid. Her mother was sitting next to her, so I waited a minute to see what that dynamic would bring about. Her mother shook her head in disapproval. For some reason, and this happened quite a bit, I felt like this particular student needed to be pushed. Her tantrum seemed very immature; she wasn’t authentically confused. She wanted her way, and from the looks of it, she got that often.
I told her she could quietly talk to me in the hall about it, but that I would not change the assignment. She sat there, fists clenched, tears welled up, and wrote nothing. She did not come back to class after the break.
At the end of class, we noticed an ambulance had pulled up out front. This is also not uncommon. We finished up with class and went to the hallway to discover a group of paramedics rolling a gurney into the women’s bathroom.
Turns out that the paramedics were in there with my student. She had eaten a bottle of her Zoloft in an attempt to kill herself.
I asked that she not return to my class. I didn’t feel competent enough to teach an entire class and play therapist to such a volatile student. Not only that, it’s not fair to the rest of the class. I was informed that she had the right to come back to class. Thank God she never did.
The school incorporates pretty sophisticated business savvy into how they dupe students. When a student fails out of one program, after thousands of dollars and countless struggles, they simply enroll them into another one. This is perhaps one of their most insidious practices, as it usually ends up costing the student far more money than if they were to just fail out of one.
Once I started paying attention, I took note of the students who were victim to this. There are three in particular. On student, Rhonda, was 63 at the time she enrolled. I had her for English 10, twice. She barely passed the second time. She was deaf until the age of ten, had severe learning disabilities, couldn’t at all grasp technology and often sought the help of others to help her in that area, which was fine. She’s a very sweet and hardworking woman. She’s also her mother’s caretaker. Rhonda cried out of frustration a lot, in most of her classes. She wanted to be a nurse, and so went through the mandatory classes that would prepare her for that road; when that didn’t work out, they set her up in the Medical Billing and Coding program; when that didn’t work, she ended up getting an Office Skills certificate. If anyone cared, or was paying attention, they would have put her in that program to begin with.
She was in my English 101 class, where it is mandatory that students are able to write essays using research. After so many attempts at privately tutoring her, I called it a day. She was so frustrated. She could only barely identify a complete sentence after taking English 10 twice. She couldn’t remember how to find research, format the paper, use periods.
I walked her down to a former Program Director of the medical program, Mary. I was very direct. I told her that Rhonda was not capable of passing this level class. Ever. And that we were only wasting her time and money in pushing her. She agreed. She was one of the good ones, but they eventually fired her for telling potential students that they would not succeed in the school.
When Rhonda heard that she just had to pass her keyboarding class to earn her Office Skills certificate, she started to cry tears of joy that she wouldn’t have to worry about English or Math ever again.
She walked away with a $35K Office Skills certificate. She could have obtained one for free elsewhere.
A similar situation occurred with another middle aged woman, Sandra. She is disabled, has felony drug charges — among other various legal issues — and is addicted to all kinds of pain pills. She would often fall asleep in class or at the computer. She enrolled in the Pharmacy Tech program. She told the admissions adviser about this before registering. They said it would be fine. And they’re right. There’s no law that says you can’t obtain a degree in a field, even though the likelihood of getting a job in the field is nil.
Sandra signed up. She plugged through the classes as best as she could, but many were just too challenging for her. They suggested that she switch majors, so she did. She tried taking classes in the medical field. When the time came for her to do her externship, they formally ran her background check. They discovered criminal record and had her escorted off the campus, despite the fact that she had told them about it before she even enrolled.
But they did get those checks. She is now close to $40K in debt.
And finally, there’s James. James is thirty. His teeth are all rotted out, his fingers are dirty from digging through ashtrays to find cigarette butts; his thick glasses are broken and mended with tape; he often talks to himself. Before deciding to leave the school, I had to help James. Like so many, he had been in my English 10 class twice. His writing capabilities are non-existent. It’s actually painful to watch him work so hard. At one point, during his second round in my class, he grasped the concept of semicolons, which also meant he grasped the concept of a sentence. I found this to be completely fascinating. And when he was able to focus, the only time he could write a complete sentence was when using semicolons. He was so proud of himself. He actually wrote his misspelled sentences on the board. It took him a long time, but he felt safe in this class. And the students were patient with him. He also started to read aloud, which required a ton of patience. I didn’t have that kind of patience for James the first time around; I felt like he was a lost cause. Hopeless. And he also represented a weakness in myself; one that I couldn’t name. His odor and appearance alone prevented me from wanting to get close enough to help. I avoided him altogether. And also because I had some pretty tough characters in our first English class together. It was gangsta. I had to stay on my toes to keep the gangsters coming to class. For some reason, I really got along well with them. They respected me.
Once James entered my class for the second time, and because the classroom environment was better, I was able to dig deeper into him. I saw this fragile human who had made the school his home. I became curious about him. I started talking to him about the things he was passionate about — Science Fiction. Then he became focused. Smart. He would actually respond to me when I asked him questions; whereas before, he’d just put his head up and walk away from me.
One night, we did a writing exercise in which students chose a room from their childhood to write about; one that they felt safe in. They wrote for seven minutes straight. Then they wrote for seven minutes about a current room they feel safe in; and again, for seven minutes, about a room they might feel safe in ten years from now. James read his aloud. He read about his past and present rooms. He never made it to the future room. I got some insight. In both rooms, the main theme was his older brother. As long as his older brother wasn’t in the room, he felt safe. And I later met his brother. It all made perfect sense. His brother is cruel to him. He spent time in prison for murder. He is a buff, sharp-witted ass hole.
I decided to go and get entrance test scores from the person who sets students up at the testing stations. James scored a 2/100 on his writing test. I started to get curious. I asked for more. My students’ scores were 16/100, 32/100, 19/100. Pretty soon, seeing a score in the 50’s started to look good. I was appalled. I brought these tests into my Program Director’s office, addressing James, in particular. She was still new, and by this point, I didn’t care about repercussions. She was a bit thrown off by his score, and by my concern. I told her it wasn’t right that we were taking his money. She brought the test to the woman who admitted him, and was told that James had schizophrenia. She said he must be off his meds. When I gave her the look of disgust, and told her we have no right admitting a student like this, she did what they all do. She told me that, unfortunately, everyone has the right to an education. I told her that we sought him out, and that it was vile.
The next day, I was blocked from looking at any more test scores. I was no longer granted access to any of my students’ entrance test information. It also came to my attention that because he had failed so many classes, they were about to move him into another department. They were going to get him for every federal dollar they could; all under the guise of his desire to better himself, and his right to an education. My making noise about it put an end to that, though. They had no choice. I wasn’t afraid any more. And I was out to set things right with as many of my students as I could reach.
I was so tired of the same old speech. Of hearing over and over that while the situations are unfortunate, it’s the government’s fault. The government says everyone should and can go to college. I felt like I was under the thumb of a giant-sized child bully. That we all were. I would often imagine what these shareholders looked like, if they knew what they were investing in.
And then it occurred to me. It made perfect sense that we received emails telling us not to talk with the media, or our jobs would be terminated. We are all inside the belly of a fiscal cult. The meetings were attempts at brainwashing. We were educators. They depended on our altruism, on our desires to help our students. I suppose it’s also worth mentioning that teachers did not share meetings with admissions advisors or financial aid specialists. We were entirely separate. And for good reason.
Special meetings were held for those groups. When enrollment fell, or when new regulations were implemented, emergency meetings were held. And the school spared no expense; they would rent out halls in fancy hotels, order loads of food, to make the event fun and intimate. Then they told the employees exactly what to say or do in order to keep their numbers up without breaking the rules.
I buddied up to a few admissions advisers during my time there. They were car salesmen; they were doting and charismatic, but not in any kind of advanced way. They don’t need to have complex recruiting tactics. Their potential clients are easily persuaded.
Shortly before my exit, a special meeting was called for instructors. A new regulation had been passed. In an effort to stop the bleeding of federal dollars, a very small rule was made. We came to the meeting knowing full-well that something was up. They set us up, first, by reporting retention numbers. For new instructors, this comes as exciting and inspirational; for those of us who have been around and who are aware of the sheer insignificance and emptiness that this means, we just sit and stare, waiting for the content of the meeting so that we can get back to doing anything other than that.
One of the administrators tells us there has been a change in the grading structure, that students’ financial aid now is determined on the difference between a “D” and an “F.” If the student receives an “F,” they will be allowed to take the class again using federal loans; if they receive a “D,” they will have to pay out of pocket, or use private loans. We were told that part of the regulation’s condition was that it is entirely up to the instructors. Then there was a long silence. He looked around at us, individually, in the eyes; he told us he was sure we would do the right thing.
A few things run through my mind. First of all, students earn their grades. So this entire meeting could have been altogether avoided. If we would have never been privy to this information, things would organically occur. So I am very aware that the meeting, the long silence, the eye contact all mean something. It means we should really focus on giving students “F” grades if they are going to get the “D.” And considering how many of them earn such low grades, this will really have some impact.
Then I think of the students who will never pass, can’t pass, shouldn’t be here in the first place. And I realize that I can help, even though it feels incredibly dirty and might potentially defy numbers. But then I remember: I don’t grade using numbers. I have learned to grade using my own version of proficiency grading. To grade based on the details, mark down for late work, account for essay revisions using a specific point system is worthless in my writing classes. I don’t use worksheets where students fill in the blanks. They write, revise, write some more; and if the class objectives are evident in their final work, they get the grade that the work represents. It’s pretty basic. I’d rather spend my energies engaging students, making assignments relevant and interesting; allow students to find their own voices and writing styles so that they want to write, rather than making sure ten points are given or taken away for the right or wrong transitional phrase. I want them to be aware that writing is a powerful tool that far surpasses sterile academic writing. The majority of these students are not going into academia. Many of them have unique life experiences and could write for many different audiences. I tell them the objective is to write so that others can read and understand their perspectives. If they should sometimes break the rules, but the content is understood, I’m not going to take that away from them.
That small little rule gave me the slightest power. It gave all of us a little power. We discussed this fact among ourselves, and came to a quiet understanding as teachers.
Sometimes we got very gifted and capable students. This can have its pros and cons. A very bright student ended up in one of my worst classes. The class had only seven students. Daniel is sharp. He’s young and had already had a career, but he wanted to come back to school. He didn’t yet have his GED, which was also common. But Daniel was different– he dressed nicely, he wrote well and easily analyzed text; he always had his homework finished, and he was very aware of the unsettling nature of our class. At one point, he asked me why I had to tolerate the behavior of two students in particular. They would miss class together– sometimes a week stretch– then come back to class in a rage because I didn’t email them their assignments. The two women would yell at me in front of the class. I asked for them to be removed, but to no avail. He was shocked, and it also gave him some insight into what kind of place he was paying to educate him.
He was new to college, and just trusted that anything “college” would be trustworthy. About two weeks into the term, he came to me and asked me to sign a grade form for financial aid. He had not yet received an award package for tuition, but they assured him, based on his father’s income, that he would qualify for the full award. He believed them and kept coming to class. He also asked me about getting his GED. I told him who to contact, a local community college, and that most likely the test wouldn’t cost him any money.
His financial aid package never came. They ended up denying him two weeks before the end of the term. And because he took five classes, he now owes the school over $5K.
And when I told a friend, who works at the college, that I got him signed up to get his GED through a local community college, he became angry. The college tacked on a few hundred dollars to his tuition in exchange for helping him get his GED through them. They also didn’t want him to get it immediately. They tried to encourage him to wait until the next term– anything to keep him coming back. He took the GED that week, passed it, and was accepted into a local University the following fall term.
It made sense. One regulation that the government put into place is the 90/10 rule. This mandates that any proprietary college receives no more than 90% of their revenues from Title IV federal aid. Now Daniel counts as one of the very few 10% of those paying with private loans, or, out-of-pocket. I couldn’t help but wonder how many other students were made into loopholes in order to accommodate that rule.
I started to read reviews of the college, just to see what students were saying. I realized that not many of them would even know that they could review the college, but I knew some would. There it was. Poorly written, negative reviews. If they could only spell and write well, maybe they’d be listened to. I told my students this. I have always told them if they want to complain, they better make sure they are doing their homework, writing well, and keeping documentation to bolster their claims.
After a few negative reviews, I noticed something strange. There were (and still are) these glowing, well-written, and very similar positive reviews. These reviews are written in the same voice; they are positive about the same things– “the school is very helpful; I am learning a lot, the computer lab is great, credits transfer.” Although there is no way to deduce this, I am willing to bet that the school actually writes these reviews. I analyze writing for a living. I know for a fact that six consecutive well-written reviews is not an accurate example of our student population.
There is nothing illegal about writing reviews for your own place of business.
At a certain point, I started becoming vocally disgruntled. I didn’t respect anything they were doing. I didn’t believe in their version of educating people. I was completely sucked dry. My passion for teaching, my talent, and my brambly background that allowed me to relate to them was replaced by a grand sense of injustice– all the feelings that go along with it. My salary and benefits were coming out of these students’ pockets.
If I am going to blatantly steal, it’s not going to be from these people.
I started to assign compare and contrast essays. Students would have to find research comparing community colleges to proprietary schools, just like the one we were in the belly of.
Some of them came up with just the kind of numbers that I’d hoped they would. Some of them got it. We would discuss the tuition differences, the models, the bad press in class. On student, a smart guy, stopped coming to class after that assignment. He emailed me and asked me why I worked in such a place.
I wondered the same thing. I became a snoop, asked admissions officers pointed questions. I was now undercover.
“Do you enroll students who are clearly disabled or have mental health issues?”
“All of the time! Look around — they are all fucked up!”
No contrition in their voices. Nothing but this declaration of ‘Duh!’
As a single mother, this job was important to me. Full-time is not a possibility at most community colleges, but I knew I had to quit. I was openly disgruntled; I started to speak my mind in meetings, and I decided to expose this school for what it is.
I sent an email to the president of the school, telling him that I would not be coming back the next term because the ethical practices of the college were just too disturbing. He sent me an email back, asking me to come to his office and meet with him. He asked me why I thought the school was unethical.
I told him everything– the test scores, the tuition, the impossibility of most of our students ever getting jobs, etc.
He just looked at me, with a smile on his face, and asked if there was anything he could do for me.
My mission was to finish up the semester with my students, get as much information together as possible, collect students’ names and numbers (not such an easy thing to do, as many of them go through phone numbers like my teenage daughter goes through bath towels), and contact as many people as I could to get this information out there.
I contacted a local alternative newspaper that runs controversial stories and has the audience I want to reach. They quickly became very interested in the story idea. I met with a reporter and intern, and it was a go. At first, I was very skeptical about the whole thing. I felt like I was going to get caught; or that maybe I was crazy and nothing was wrong with their practices at all. But the more I poured out to the reporter, and the more that jaws dropped, the more I felt confident that I was doing the right thing.
Diane, the reporter, was actually an intern. This seemed sort of strange to me, that the editor would give such a significant and complicated story to a newbie. I emailed the two main editors and shared with them my skepticism about it. That’s when Grant, one of the paper’s big editors got involved. We worked tirelessly on this story for nearly five months. We visited students in jail, we looked for others in homeless shelters; we interviewed homeless shelters and even found some pretty crazy relationships with Wall Street– short sellers who would speak out against these schools were really working for firms that were literally (and I don’t mean this in a teenage girl sort of way) betting on the school’s failure.
We got several employees and students to talk, to go on the record even.
I found an attorney to take some of my students’ cases Pro-bono. These students needed their tuition reimbursed, so he worked with us for a few months. A few of these students are ones I mentioned; but some were afraid to go through with it. Two women in particular thought the school would retaliate against them, so they declined; both were older, both learning disabled and both in debt thousands and thousands of dollars with no degree to show.
……..To be continued……