Note on the text: When I asked Kevilina if she had story from her experience as a former for-profit college faculty member, I had no idea that she would hand me pages and pages of primary accounts of student and faculty abuse and exploitation handed down by bad actors. The following post is the first in a series of Kevilina’s experiences to appear on our blog. The students’ names have been changed to protect their privacy. ~ Tiffany Kraft
by Kevilina Kay Burbank
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 lawsuits 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 hamper regulation of the industry. Many conservative supporters of for-profit schools 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.
I've taught at many different levels; I taught in China for a few months, went through a Master of Arts in Teaching (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. Their economic growth is relentless. 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 vulnerable citizens, and they pocket millions. The federal funds that they receive are guaranteed. There are no risks involved. Many of the students recruited are economically disadvantaged, and the basic requirements are that they receive a 50/100 score on a reading entrance test, have no outstanding debt with previous student loans, and then 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, which includes aggressive and misleading recruitment, 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 $1,200.00 to fail English 10 again.
I'm not a social worker, or am I? The truth is, for-profit faculty often fill multiple roles and take on a lot of work that is emotionally difficult. It’s hard for professors to provide this kind of support for students when they are not trained for it, and many do so while making poverty-level wages. 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 even though that would be difficult to do with a criminal record.
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 relied on us to 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. This woman will struggle to pay off the debt she incurred and it’s unlikely that she will be able to perform any kind of advanced job duties. And there are other students with learning disabilities, too. These students require more attention and support than for-profit schools offer.
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 faced overwhelming obstacles. 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 at my school consisted of many former students who were not trained in the fields they work in. These for-profit 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; however, her criminal record and mental health history would likely impede her from getting a competitive position to pay off her debt. 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, based on the school’s misleading promises, that she would become a nurse, and she had no idea that she would have trouble breaking into the professional world for a myriad of reasons.
She used to ask me for advice, compliment 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.
To be continued ...