Note on the the text: The following post is the second in a series of Kevilina’s experiences as a for-profit instructor to appear on our blog. The students’ names have been changed to protect their privacy. You can read the first installment here. ~ Tiffany Kraft
by Kevilina Kay Burbank
As I said in the the first installment of “Publicly Traded,” I taught at a private for-profit college for two years, and it was one of the most eye-opening and unsettling experiences of my career as an educator. I quickly saw how profits, not students, were valued. Poor student outcomes were routine, and I wanted answers.
So I decided to go and get entrance test scores from the person who sets students up at the testing stations. One student, James, scored a 2/100 on his reading entrance test. I started to get curious. I asked for more. My students’ scores were 16/100, 32/100, 19/100 (the school supposedly required that all admitted students receive at least a 50/100). Pretty soon, seeing a score in the 50's started to look good. I was appalled. It was becoming clear to me that, despite low test scores, the school was accepting students who may not have been academically prepared, probably because they were more concerned with tuition than academic success.
I brought these tests into my Program Director's (PD’s) office, addressing James, in particular. The PD was new, and by this point, I didn't care about repercussions. She was a bit thrown off by James’ 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 learned that James had schizophrenia. The PD’s dismissive response was that the student must be off his meds, as if this was a minor issue. When I gave her a look of disgust, and told her we have no right admitting a student with mental illness without the resources to support him, she did what they all do: she told me everyone has the right to an education. Such empty rhetoric is often used as a blanket justification for the exploitation of students in the for-profit higher-ed sector. I told her that the school had preyed on him and other students facing similar challenges, 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 James had failed so many classes, and therefore was at risk of losing his federal loans, the school was about to move him into another department, where he would start over with new courses. They were going to get him for every federal dollar they could; all under the guise of providing him with 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 outraged over this treatment of students. I felt like I was under the thumb of a giant-sized bully. That we all were. I would often wonder what the shareholders of our school were like, if they knew what they were investing in.
Then it occurred to me that the school relied on the altruism of educators, on our desires to help our students, and our silence. We were also entirely isolated from knowing more about admissions and financial aid practices. We were told not to speak to the media. And for good reason.
Emergency meetings were held for administrators and finance specialists whenever enrollment fell, or when new regulations were implemented. And the school spared no expense; they would rent out halls in fancy hotels, and order loads of food to make the event fun and intimate. I suppose it's also worth mentioning that teachers did not attend these meetings. After these meetings, administrators would then tell 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 advisors during my time working at a for-profit school. They were slick salesmen; they were doting and charismatic, but not in any kind of advanced way. They didn’t need to have complex recruiting tactics. Their potential clients were easily sold on “school” as the ticket to a brighter future.
Shortly before my exit, a special meeting was called for instructors. A new set of regulations on Program Integrity had been passed by the Obama administration in an effort to stop the bleeding of federal dollars. 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 of those numbers, we just sit and stare, waiting for the content of the meeting so that we can get back to doing anything else.
One of the administrators told us there had been a change in the grading structure, that students’ financial aid now was determined on the difference between a "D" and an "F.” If the student received an "F," they would be allowed to take the class again using federal loans; if they received a "D,” they would have to pay out of pocket, or use private loans. We were told that part of the regulation's condition was that it was 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 ran through my mind. First of all, students earned 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 was very aware that the meeting, the long silence, the eye contact all meant something. It meant we should lean towards giving students "F" grades instead of "D.” And considering how many students received such low grades, I knew this would really have some impact.
I thought of the students who would never pass, couldn’t pass, and shouldn't have been there in the first place. And I realized that I could help, even though it felt incredibly dirty and might potentially defy numbers. But then I remembered: I don't grade using numbers. I had learned to grade using my own version of proficiency grading. To grade based on the details, mark down for late work, accounting for essay revisions using a specific point system was worthless in my writing classes. I didn’t use worksheets where students fill in the blanks. They wrote, revised, wrote some more; and if the class objectives were evident in their final work, they got the grade that the work represented.
It was pretty basic. I'd rather spend my energy engaging students, and making assignments relevant and interesting; I allowed students to find their own voices and writing styles so that they want to write, rather than making sure ten points were given or taken away for the right or wrong transitional phrase. I wanted them to be aware that writing is a powerful tool that far surpasses sterile academic writing. Many of the students had unique life experiences and could write for many different audiences. I told them that the objective was to write so that others can read and understand their perspectives. If they should sometimes break the rules, but the content is understood, I wasn’t going to take that away from them.
That little regulation, Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP), that required a “structured and consistent approach to evaluating a student’s academic work” gave me the slightest power over the administrator’s grading structure scheme. It gave all of us a little power. We discussed this fact among ourselves, and came to a quiet understanding as teachers. Students would not fail and need to retake coursework if they demonstrated proficiency based on structured and consistent evaluation. The administration was clearly gaming the system; that is, they would rather see students fail and thereby qualify for the one time retake that federal regulations allowed than see them succeed.
To be continued ...