The most recent edition of Frontline offers an exceedingly disturbing look at the for-profit
college world. The people who are driving this world brazenly talk on the record about what
a wonderful world this is. Their greed and callousness is stunning: “Well, what can’t be bought
and sold?; why is an education any different?” This is a central question that I think animates
the entire higher education realm at the moment. At its core is the question that Tim
Steffensmeier is exploring in his new project: What is the point/role of higher ed in the 21st C.?
What does it mean to teach people to think critically and creatively in an age wherein information
is abundant? What are we adding and How can we provide it to the widest range of students in
an ethical way? There absolutely is a place for first-generation students to flourish in the modern
academy, but they cannot do that under what can only be described as a bait and switch model.
What all students need in this age is for the academy to meet them where they are and then
engage them to go further (i.e., embed student in the community, as the Ashoka approach
describes (see a recent discussion of their inroads into high ed at The Chronicle), and then
give them space to really think about and engage the community issues in a way that demands
they imagine solutions– this is often, I have found, a step beyond what service learning, which
focuses typically more on getting the individual student to reflect on the service work they did
in terms of course content, does and a space to which IF could find fruitful ground).
What was interesting to me, having worked at schools in the private and public sectors that aspire
to serve underrepresented students, was that some of the private-sector schools exercise the same
nefarious approaches: basically, there is a pile of money to be had in federal dollars going to
student financial aid. These for-profit schools very openly assert that they are going after these
students “that no elite mainstream schools will have.” University of Phoenix now gets nearly
90% of its revenue from student loan dollars and spends $130 million per year just on marketing.
Jack Crittenden and I had a long talk the other afternoon about how his own school is trying to
go after these first generation dollars (I mean students) as a means of plugging huge revenue
losses from the state.
The problem, of course, is that these students need a lot of attention and support if they are
actually to succeed (no that this is the goal). That’s expensive, and virtually no school is truly
providing this– despite the claims made by these for-profit “schools” and some of their peer
institutions like Trinity “University” in Washington, DC. Their president claims to be delivering
to the at-risk students she serves, but don’t believe it: there is not even a career center to be found
on that campus. These students are most naive to how higher ed works because they and their
families literally have no experience within it. These students would be the first in their families
to go to college. And, while many go, few finish. All, however, whether they leave with a degree
or not, leave with anywhere from $50,000 – $200,000 in student debt floating to as high as a
14% interest rate. We can do better than that, and I think that approaches like Ashoka and IF
could especially be tools that work very well for the most exploited students in the modern academy.