Tuesday, February 19, 2008

This Should Be Bigger News

According to this blurb in IHE, Career Education Corp is shutting down nine of its campuses, all in the Northeast. McIntosh College, Lehigh Valley College, and a bunch of Gibbs and Katharine Gibbs campuses will 'teach out,' closing in 2009.

As a veteran of a proprietary college in the Northeast, this really struck me.

In my full-time faculty days at Proprietary U, I taught 15 credits at a time, 12 months a year. That was the gig; we all did. As a (predictable) result, it was incredibly hard to get any kind of substantive writing done. My colleagues in the traditional academic disciplines – we were there to 'round out' their technical or business education with a smattering of general education courses – felt terribly put-upon, even as we were grateful to have full-time teaching jobs at all. Many of us were hired fresh out of grad school, having graduated into the brutal academic job market of the 1990's. (Not to be confused with the brutal academic job market of the 2000's.) While most of us started with some enthusiasm, the grind of a twelve-month full-time teaching calendar wore most of us down pretty quickly. When the tech boom of the late 90's crashed, the younger ones generally found escape routes (usually at community colleges). The round of layoffs I survived before I left was followed by a few more. Some of the folks who are still there have taken to wondering – probably rightly -- how much longer before the ax falls.

Working there, I remember always having at least a vague sense of a clock ticking. I was grateful for the job, since it gave me the chance to support myself, stay in one place, get married, start a family, and gain administrative experience at an early stage of my career. (I sometimes thought of it as a liferaft job.) It was also a kind of pedagogical boot camp, since the students were atrociously entitled and the teaching calendar simply incessant. But the sense that my sell-by date was approaching, in terms of escaping to the nonprofits, was strong. My research productivity simply didn't compare to that of peers who had teaching loads half or less of my own, and entire summers in which to write. And teaching counts for very little on the market, once you've got that first year or two under your belt.

I caught a break, as did some of my erstwhile colleagues. But some folks didn't. (A dear friend was recently laid off from there right after getting her twenty-years-of-service recognition. She's adjuncting at a nearby cc now.) And now, for them and for similar folks at those nine campuses, the liferaft is sinking.

It probably goes without saying that the for-profits don't have tenure systems, but even tenure won't save you if the entire college goes under. (Just ask the tenured folk at Antioch College.) And if you aren't a superstar, hitting the market anew after twenty years means applying for those same $45k entry-level positions as the folks fresh out of grad school. If you took on obligations in those twenty years based on the higher salary you had gradually attained, well, good luck.

During the late 90's boom, and even for a little while after, the rhetoric at PU was a capitalist version of Khruschev's “we will bury you.” Rapid expansion, and rapid rises in the parent company's stock price, contrasted strongly with continued struggles among the public colleges. The narrowness of curricular focus – if it won't get you a job, we won't teach it – was touted as a breakthrough. (Those of us in the evergreen disciplines were always a little uncomfortable with that, but it came with the gig.) Nobody ever asked of PU's grads, “what are you going to do with that?” The tuition was considerably higher than at the nearby publics, but the job-market payoff for students was obvious, and that carried the day.

Until it didn't.

A couple of years into the crash, PU's signature programs clearly weren't hot anymore, it wasn't so obvious anymore what the next hot thing would be. That made it hard for PU to decide what to teach, and made it hard to justify the premium tuition to prospective students. The unapologetically utilitarian bent of a PU education meant that, when the market winds shifted, the cost was suddenly a lot harder to justify. So the cost-cutting began, and the employee-blaming, and the layoffs. From what I've seen and heard, PU still hasn't figured out what the next hot thing is going to be.

Having been through that, the news of nine Career Education campuses closing really hit me. That's an awful lot of college faculty (and staff, and yes, administrators) abruptly out of work. And the conditions of their work have likely been such that they'll have an awful time finding something at a comparable salary, if they've been there a while. (McIntosh College has been there for over a hundred years, so I'm guessing some folks there have built some serious seniority.) Teaching in a boot camp setting actually makes you less marketable after a while, since you just haven't had the same kind of time to build portable credentials (that is, to publish). The irony is that the folks teaching something built to be useful find themselves abruptly considered useless.

This is probably at the heart of my discomfort whenever I hear cc's touted for workforce development and occupational programs. Yes, cc's do that, and it's good that they (we) do. But today's hot jobs are tomorrow's cold ones. Evergreen disciplines may seem stodgy and boring in the heat, but when the weather changes, their appeal becomes clear. The software we teach this year will be obsolete next year and forgotten in five; the literacy and numeracy we teach this year will stay 'useful' for students' entire lives.

My condolences to the people at McIntosh, Lehigh Valley, and the Gibbs/Katharine Gibbs colleges. You all deserve far more than a blurb.