Monday, May 16, 2016

The Other Legacy of the For-Profit College Boom

The New Yorker has a pretty good piece on the students stranded by the abrupt closures of for-profit colleges.  It mentions the students who are withholding loan payments for programs taken at the Corinthian Colleges, which both closed and showed evidence of fraud.  And it ends with a heartbreaking profile of a former student who’s trapped in low-wage limbo, waiting for final judgment on loans he won’t be able to repay, and yet rightly wary of going back to school after what happened to him the first time.

As far as it goes, it’s quite good.

But I was disappointed that it didn’t follow through on the photograph that led the article.  The photo showed some fired faculty loading boxes of their stuff into their cars, presumably never to return.  When the college closed, they lost their jobs.  The same is likely true of staff and administration.

Coming on the heels of Burlington College’s closure, I couldn’t help but think about the other legacy of the for-profit college boom: former employees cast adrift.

For a while in the late 90’s, and again in the late 00’s, for-profit colleges accounted for a disproportionate percentage of academic hiring.  (I was part of the first wave.)  That happened for two reasons: for-profits were growing, and non-profits weren’t hiring.  If you were on the market at a particular time and place, you may have had a choice between a sustaining job at a for-profit, and adjuncting at a non-profit.  In that context, the glib equation of “for-profit” with “exploitative” was questionable at best.  

Some of the people I worked with at DeVry should have been snapped up elsewhere, and would have been in a more rational world.  Many eventually were, and when we meet now, we tend to use verbs like “escaped.”  One who retired semi-voluntarily expressed his envy that, in his words, I “found a hole in the fence.”  It was a difficult place to work in the best of times, and the best of times are well behind it.  At least it’s still open.

It had (and has) its issues, which is why we gravitate to prison metaphors.  But it also took in a generation of academics that nobody else would.  It was a port in a storm.  As more of those ports close, the storm only gets stronger.  

It’s easy to write the sins of the organization onto the individual employees, but it’s also a category mistake.  The faculty there -- myself included -- resented and resisted attempted management intrusions into, say, grading decisions.  (Part of my decision to escape was based on not wanting to do that.  I can say with a straight face that I never did.)  We took our teaching seriously, as did the students.  Many of us simultaneously taught at various non-profit colleges and universities in the area, partly for money, partly for a different environment, and partly for validation.  Most of us would have accepted, eagerly, offers from traditional institutions if they had been offered.  

Monday’s piece in IHE about ever-increasing discount rates suggests, among other things, that the for-profits aren’t the outliers that many academics like to think they are.  They’re the canaries in the coal mine.  Many of the little ports in which academics have taken shelter are looking unsustainable.  The folks who’ve worked at Burlington College aren’t in any better shape now than those who worked at Corinthian.  And I don’t think Burlington College will be the last.

For-profits were especially susceptible to boom-bust cycles, since they drew their revenue entirely from enrollment.  But an awful lot of smaller private colleges aren’t really that different, and their discount rates suggests that they’ve hit, if not exceeded, the highest tuitions the market will bear.

I don’t really have a happy ending to this one.  I just hope that hiring committees at the few places that are still hiring won’t hold past resourcefulness against candidates.  They worked honestly, hard, and (often) well.  It’s not their fault that they’re left to pack their things for anonymous headline photos.